Sunday, February 23, 2014
O Captain, My Captain: The Shifting Authorities of Captain Phillips
Movie Review: Captain Phillips
Director: Paul Greengrass
Reviewed: 23 February 2014
jamesintexas rating-- ****
"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" states the famous ruler in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II. When you're the captain, people look to you for answers, and the sense of responsibility has a palpable weight. The weight of millions of dollars worth of shipping containers and food combined with the lives of his twenty crew members on the MV Maersk Alabama weighs upon the eponymous captain as he spies a skiff with four armed men rapidly approaching his vessel off the Somali coast. The weight of landing this valuable cargo vessel and its treasures as well as the pressure from warlords at home weighs upon Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirate with the will to power to seize the moment and distinguish himself from his peers with his bravery and ruthlessness. Paul Greengrass's exciting new film Captain Phillips purports to be about the events of a 2009 hijacking of a U.S. ship by four pirates and the subsequent rescue efforts on the part of our government. However, much more subtly, Greengrass has woven a tale of leadership and authority into what could have been a strict adventure-thriller. Yes, the film is breathlessly thrilling and suspenseful; we are always in the capable hands of the director of the Jason Bourne sequels and the riveting United 93. But, the film also zeroes in on the stresses and the shifting authorities within scenes as the battle for supremacy must only leave one winner. "I am the captain now" announces Muse in the film's most famous scene, locking eyes with Captain Phillips, upending his world. However, the entire film is about shifting power and the search for authority. Muse looks to both another skiff boat leader and a superior to take his orders, as well as an unseen warlord calling the shots from afar. Phillips has his precise chain of command to execute his orders and his protocols to rely upon when the situation becomes out of hand. Calls to naval rescue centers have an eerie 9-11-like sense of neglect as one radio operator tells him the approaching vessel is "probably just fishermen." When the Alabama is boarded and the command are taken hostage by Muse's men, Captain Phillips continues to lead and direct his hidden crew by deferring to Muse's authority while simultaneously undermining it, quite the delicate balance. Captain Phillips's authority shows up in his ability to subvert the other and allow his men to sabotage the ship, lay traps, and evade capture. And the chain of command set in place by calling for help gives Greengrass the chance to show the machinations of the United States Defense Department at work, sending drones, helicopters, and entire battleships to rescue the Alabama.
There are other captains in the film, as the involvement escalates into an international incident. Captain Frank Castellano (Yul Vazquez) arrives in a U.S. battleship under orders from his Admiral to talk Muse into surrendering. And their orders from President Obama are to not allow the pirates to take an American hostage into Somalia, triggering the employment of the Navy Seals. Captain Castellano understands that his stopgap measures and attempts end the moment the Seals arrive on his ship and take tactical command. The head Navy Seal, he is the captain now. And the decision-making becomes even more frenetic and risky as the pirates take Captain Phillips with them in a small lifeboat, claustrophobic and increasingly violent.
Although I knew the ending of this film as most viewers will, I still found it completing absorbing and unrelenting in its suspense and intensity, particularly in the skiff boat scenes. Greengrass has a steady hand, always given enough surrounding context while never fully breaking our concentration on the central relationship of Muse and Phillips. I found the final scene in the film, which I refuse to spoil, to be maybe the best scene in all of movies this year: a heartbreaking look at the consequences of these violent events and Greengrass's final exclamation point on his treatise of leadership. The last character in the film takes the authority from Captain Phillips, using that leadership to help, to heal, to allow him to be weak and traumatized. That final surrendering of power to another shows the way leadership need not only be a burden and a weight that must be carried and endured. It can also be a transcendent way of transferring and taking away pain and pressure, providing calm under pressure, allowing one to feel weak because another is strong. A more typical film and director would never have considered including this final scene. I am so glad that Greengrass did.
Hanks and Abdi both give terrific performances in a very physical, confined way. Hanks has to masterfully play a number of things in his scenes: he has to be the smartest guy in the room, always thinking of about his rescue and escape while simultaneously manipulating the leadership structure of Muse and his band of disparate men. Abdi makes Muse a tragic figure, a man in over his head who knows that turning back is not an option. When asked by Phillips that there must be other options besides piracy for him, Muse responds, "Maybe in America." I found myself deeply moved by the story, and two moments at the end of the film completely overwhelmed me, provoking unexpected tears.
Captain Phillips, while an exercise in the study of leadership and power, also is about economics. Captain Phillips must take the risk of leading this vessel through dangerous waters as part of his job; Muse is accountable to warlords in his village for bringing valuable cargo back to Somalia. In today's world, more and more people must take on jobs that require sacrifice, time away from family, possibly even danger. Everyone has a boss or a captain, and the decision to be the captain often leads to isolation and unpopularity. Both Muse and Phillips find themselves in similar interactions with their subordinates. Greengrass curiously includes shots of Captain Phillips, Muse, and Captain Castellano all alone in their individual rooms, dressing and preparing for the day, loosely tied to their families through emails, pictures on a mirror, or a fleeting glimpse. But when on the job, these men are about completing the job, no matter who dislikes them. And the desire for quick, easy, and unearned power clashes heavily with the militaristic chain of command where a person ascends to captaincy after many years of toiling. Muse wants and needs his authority instantly. And, perhaps, that is one of the reasons why he fails, though the crushing inevitability of the United States military weighing down upon four pirates seems impossible to overcome.