It’s easy to forget this while hanging at an average Portland cafe, but America is scary as hell. Especially if you’re a Somali pirate.
You probably already know the story behind the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips, because you heard it first from the helmet-haired hagiographers of cable news. Back in 2009, four Somali pirates boarded a freighter called the Maersk Alabama and kidnapped its captain, Richard Phillips (played by Hanks). They kept him for five days on a lifeboat, demanding a ransom of $10 million, then got their brains blown out of their skulls by Navy SEALs.
In outline form, the politics of the plot are problematic for a film: It is the heroic triumph of superior, mostly white American forces against amateurish, violent African criminals. But Paul Greengrass’ film is no Black Hawk Down. Whenever the Navy SEALs emerge, they are seen in blank silhouette, accompanied by the ominous music of alien assault. They look like a machine built only for death—the dispassionate, unstoppable gun-arm of American bureaucracy. The distressingly named battleship USS Halyburton, when it arrives, might as well be an Imperial star destroyer. The officers onboard are given only as much personality as their uniforms require.
It’s an interesting choice by Greengrass: Why won’t he let you just root for Tom Hanks and the Navy and then cheer at the end? The movie seems interested in something much more complicated than classic tension and release. Almost no suspense is built during the film’s first half. The initial setup and hijacking are notable for their plodding tedium: It’s like watching a 4-year-old climb stairs, left leg and then right leg on each step, each motion telegraphed long before its payoff. Hanks’ character is sympathetic because he’s Tom Hanks, but in terms of the film, he’s primarily a functionary. He’s first a creature of duty, then terribly afraid, and then—most interestingly—the film’s conscience.
What he and we are observing is the inevitable violent death of the only real characters in the film: the pirates themselves. They are desperate, abandoned, confused, angry, cornered and not remotely sympathetic. It is an excruciating waiting game, and what drives our interest is simple human compassion. Though shot with an eerie, disciplined neutrality, this is perhaps the most compassionate piece of filmmaking I’ve seen this year.
Why can’t we have heroes in this film? Because the world is too weary for them. What we have instead is a situation, and it is grim, and every part of it is sad. Watch the film, and live with that.
Critic’s Grade: A-
SEE IT: Captain Phillips is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Mill Plain, Cornelius, Oak Grove, Stadium 11, Bridgeport, City Center, Division Street, Hilltop, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Sandy.