The more movies he makes, the more Paul Greengrass’s have-it-both-ways m.o. as a filmmaker becomes clearer, aiming to craft high-octane action spectacles that also thoughtfully address topical events and current sociopolitical realities without becoming overly didactic. Some, of course, will object on principle to the mere act of turning events such as the Iraq War and the 9/11 attacks—two of Greengrass’s previous subjects—into pulse-pounding thrills in the first place, arguing that he’s exploiting real-world trauma for the sake of shallow entertainment. If nothing else, though, his latest film, Captain Phillips, reveals, perhaps with even more clarity than before, Greengrass’s well-meaning rationale behind his methods—and with it, their imposing strengths and troubling limitations.
Back when Greengrass made Bloody Sunday in 2002, many remarked on the startling sense of “you are there” authenticity and immediacy he brought to his recreation of the notorious Bloody Sunday massacre in Ireland in 1972. Some have subsequently pegged this as a “documentary-style” approach to volatile subject matter, but really, Greengrass’s directorial vision is fundamentally visceral; politics may enter into the film, but only in the context of the way it manifests itself in characters’ external actions. And when said external actions often deal with terror and violence, whether from riots, hijackings, or simply foot chases, as Greengrass’s films usually do, perhaps it’s appropriate that his films frequently feel like heart attacks waiting to happen.
Greengrass’s wholly exterior approach to tackling thorny political subject matter is admirable in theory, at least. Instead of taking an explicit stand, he presents the characters and situations to us in as realistic a manner as possible, trusting the audience not only to pick up on characterizations and motivations in the context of the present tense (a telling glance here, a throwaway act there, with nary a second for clunky exposition), but to draw our own conclusions based on what he depicts on screen. This supposedly apolitical stance is what many embraced in Greengrass’s United 93, which was praised for its “objectivity” in recreating the events on 9/11 that led to the crash of the titular airplane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The art of filmmaking, however, is a series of choices made by filmmakers in what to show and how to show it; politics, thus, are unavoidable however rigorously one tries to avoid it. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty offered an object lesson in the fallacies of “apolitical cinema”: Even as Bigelow purposefully avoided a triumphal tone in its epic chronicle of the hunt for Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, the film essentially rehashed official accounts, offering little of interest beyond Bigelow’s skill with action and suspense as well as some frankly generic human interest (Jessica Chastain’s Maya is, like 24’s Jack Bauer, so obsessed with her job that it more or less consumes her soul). As gripping as it was to watch, one would look in vain for any genuinely fresh insights into global politics, much less the people behind the scenes.
That, unfortunately, is also the biggest stumbling block of Greengrass’s faux-journalistic approach. As a thriller, Captain Phillips is undeniably top-notch, with Greengrass judiciously employing his “shaky-cam” style to consistently gripping effect for this based-on-real-events chronicle of Somali pirates who, in 2009, attempted to hijack the Maersk Alabama captained by Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks). But by focusing so ruthlessly on dramatizing this attempted seizure and subsequent hostage situation in as viscerally immediate a manner as possible, Greengrass is essentially putting his faith in the drama—the characterizations, the real-life sociopolitical issues they raise—to take care of itself.
But there’s only so much that expert thriller mechanics can do to camouflage the shallowness of Billy Ray’s screenplay. Captain Phillips also aims to be a two-tiered character drama, focusing not only on the American captain himself, but also on Muse (Barkhad Abdi), one of the Somali pirates who leads the charge of their hijacking attempt. The idea is that Phillips and Muse are, in some ways, equals, as both make impressive shows of being in charge of their units even when they’re sometimes merely being blustery, both focused on their missions, but not entirely at the expense of their capacity for human empathy, both ultimately at the mercy of economic and political forces larger than themselves. Ray rarely goes beyond the surface when it comes to actually filling in these characters and sketching in those larger forces. He gives Phillips one monologue at the beginning in which he expresses his nostalgic yet accepting move-forward perspective in living in today’s economy. Muse doesn’t even get the benefit of a tent-pole monologue like that; instead, we have to settle for barebones suggestions that money problems are what drive him to piracy.
Money is at the heart of one crucial exchange in Captain Phillips that exposes the inadequacy of the film as anything more than just an electric thriller. At one point, Phillips asks, out of what appears to be genuine curiosity, why Muse and his cohorts feel a need to engage in piracy in order to gain money. Muse’s response—“If only there was any other way”—is piercing in its unspoken implications of a whole third-world nation so beset by economic travails that they’ve been led to believe that there’s absolutely no alternative than committing armed theft in order to achieve their dreams of prosperity. But while a smarter and more probing film might have seized on those implications and actually explored them, Greengrass and company are so tied to their thriller mechanics—which, even more than in United 93, isn’t above the injection of bombast thanks to Henry Jackman’s noisy Hans Zimmer-like score—that they can’t even be bothered to ask such questions in the first place. By the end, even as Hanks has a magnificent meltdown upon the conclusion of this ordeal, the ostensibly moving moment is tempered by the knowledge that we not only don’t really know Phillips as an individual beyond the nobility and vulnerability he shows in this time of crisis, but we haven’t really gleaned any extra illumination about the state of our world today despite the lip service the filmmakers pay to addressing such issues.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 27—October 13.