I was going to put *spoilers* here, and technically there are, but it seemed a little obvious. You’ll see what I mean when you read on.
Like most films based on true stories there were the inevitable rumours, conspiracies, and suppositions swirling around which helped to keep it in the limelight while simultaneously threatening to overshadow and even dilute its impact. Its hard to keep any mystery in tact. And like most I went in knowing a fair amount upfront.
First thing I knew – Captain Philips lives. I saw him smiling on the red carpet alongside Tom Hanks. I also knew he wrote the book this was based on, and if I didn’t know it, the credits would tell me before the very first scene.
Knowing the end of a story might seem like it will steal any tension away, especially if it is a fraught life and death drama such as this. Except most of the time, we know the hero lives. Tension has always relied on other elements – elements apparently Paul Greengrass never bothered to learn.
He is the darling of British cinema, one of our primary ambassadors in Hollywood, flying the flag for taught, gritty yet commercial filmmaking. His status was cemented with the follow up to Bourne, The Bourne Supremacy, just not unfortunately with me. I had however heard good things about this film – its picked up several awards, garnered six Oscar nominations – and I was relatively optimistic going in.
This was a human drama. A terrifying, claustrophobic experience that leaves marks on a man that can never be undone and it was our chance to taste that terror. The tension should have been thick like treacle sticking us to the screen. The ending, while known, did not need to take anything away from this. Whether fiction or fact, the same approach was required to ratchet up the ante and draw us in.
Perhaps the fault lies in Greengrass’s documentary background. He isn’t the only director, certainly lately, to try and blend the two styles but he is one of the less successful. Hi-jacking the form must always be paired with an awareness of effect. A documentary is designed to lay the facts before the viewer and let them speak for themselves without manipulation. This was about emotion. Living in that moment; a moment there could be no escape from. Its power lay in holding us, no matter how intense, how uncomfortable, making us feel as trapped as the Captain. Yet frequently as the emotion threatened to escalate Greengrass would cut away to the calm, all-systems-operating-as-normal Navy vessel. Not once, not twice, but consistently. It was like the camera was caught in a game of chicken – and it was really bad at it.
But the biggest problem with this film started with the very opening scene. It works for a documentary to present as many different sides as possible to any given story, to create as full and informed a picture as possible. And if this were a documentary I could commend Greengrass for doing just that.
We have every perspective laid bare and each revealed in timely fashion so that we are never left guessing. From the opening scene aboard the Pirates boat, where our antagonist Musee makes a stand to prove himself to the arrival of the avenging Navy Seals, we know exactly what is being done, why it is being done, as it is being done.
Greengrass should have put us in Philips pov. A captain confronted by a bunch of wild, virile young men screaming incomprehensibly, thrusting machine guns in his face, no idea what they are capable of, what is driving them, fumbling blindly in the dark hoping to connect on a human level with his captors, desperately hoping his crew are safe, that the rescuers are coming, that they will prioritise his life over diplomatic or monetary concerns.
Instead, we know why the most unlikely pirate, skinny Musee, is leading the assualt. We know the tensions that exist (however poorly we feel it) between him and the others in his crew. Every line of Somali dialogue is writ up in English, when they laugh and insult Phillips we know why, and thus we feel he knows why. Yet in reality he would have been completely ignorant, his mind filling in horrific alternatives. Normally there is little reason not to use subtitles, here there is little reason to use them.
The dilution of tension doesn’t end there. We know where the crew is. We know they are safe, we know they are plotting against the pirates. We know they hear Philips over the radio. This effect becomes even more pronounced when we move to the rescue by the Navy ships. The crew at least were still in danger themselves. The Navy are the eleventh hour cavalry, only instead of appearing just in the nick of time they arrive somewhere around the midway point and we have a fly on the wall view of everything this cavalry are mustering. Greengrass constantly goes for the wide panoramic shot so we can appreciate them, magnificent and huge against the tiny little escape pod, the reassuring presence that Philips stuck inside would never have felt. Yet again, we feel as if he can. An effect amplified by the confused intercutting between rescuers and soon-to-be rescued. A trick, ironically used to amp up tension.
Tom Hanks is a great actor who can, in the right hands, be pushed to give a mindblowing performances. With the addition of the beard and Bostonian accent he almost manages to make you forget its Tom Hanks you are watching, if the story had been more engrossing, he would have succeeded.
The elements were all there and in the hands of a skilled storyteller, this could have been great, an absolute powerhouse. As it was I found this article, Captain Philips No Hero, infinitely more interesting.