I had only middling interest in this, but it was the new movie and was said to be good and I needed to get out of the house. I'm happy to report that it was much better than I expected, gives one something to think about, and is also emotionally harrowing and cathartic. So let's hit it!
Now if you follow any news source whatsoever, you've probably heard of contemporary piracy, where armed men from poor countries board passing cargo ships, which are not armed and largely defenseless, and take their cargo. I think the main driver behind this film was simply to make a thriller about modern piracy, but in order to do that, they had to do a careful balancing act between maintaining thrills without completely demonizing the poor, African pirates, and how they responded to that challenge is one of the most interesting things about the movie.
We open at the New England home of Captain Richard Phillips, where we see him helpfully trace his route along a map, and drive to his departure with his wife, played by Catherine Keener. She is only in this scene, then vanishes completely from the film, obviously there to humanize the Captain and give us a quickie look at his larger life. They exchange some extremely stilted dialogue on the drive, featuring such clunkers as "The world is changing so fast" and "Our kids are growing up into a different world," but the point is that matters are growing ever-more economically insecure, even for Americans. Cut to Somalia! There we meet Muse (pronounced Moo-Say) and his pals, who are soon visited by emissaries of "the boss." They demand, at gunpoint, that they go out and seize another ship. Sure, they just took one last week, but now they need to take one this week. He chooses his team, and the others compete like a group of migrants or dock workers.
On the ship, Phillips continues expository duties as he shows us around the place, points out unlocked doors, and points to their place on a map. By now you're sensing that this script is going to be extremely schematic, but at least they're thinking of the audience. At the end of the first night, Phillips reads an email that incidents of piracy are up, and next morning, orders his crew to conduct a drill, which is hardly over before they have two small boats on their tail. He calls emergency services and a woman dismissively tells him it's "probably just fishermen." The increase speed and bank left and right to create waves, while you're like "Can't they call emergency services back once they see guns?"
SPOILERS > > >
They evade the ships the first day, and Philips' crew complains "I didn't sign up for this!" to which they are told "You knew we were going around Africa--what did you expect?" They are told that if they don't like it, they can quit, but they're still going to have to make the rest of the voyage. This is meant to echo back to the scene in Somalia, and demonstrate that workers around the world have little power and are placed in horrible situations. Meanwhile, we've seen Muse kill a member of his crew in order to show that he's desperate and dangerous.
Next day, one boat is back and after a tense chase, they've boarded. Phillips does a good job of trying to fend them off, although one thing I don't understand is why they don't aim their fire hoses INTO the boats. And also why these ships don't have even one gun. We're close to having schoolteachers carry guns, yet they can't put one on a freighter? Not saying there isn't a reason, but with our script providing exposition about everything else... Anyway, the crew power down the ship and go down into the engine room to hide. This time, emergency services do respond, but no one knows how long it'll take them to get there.
The next few minutes are Phillips stalling and stalling, trying to protect his crew. There is some good suspense in here that I won't spoil, and low-key acts of heroism on Phillips' part. Finally, he convinces the pirates to just take the cash on the ship and take off in the lifeboat, but they force him in with them, and take off. They plan to get to Somalia and ransom him, so they have to keep him alive and unharmed. This happens around halfway through the film, meaning that the entire last half is in that lifeboat.
As you can imagine, things a tense, and a bit slow, but more exposition is delivered as Muse complains that ships from other countries have overfished their waters, leaving nothing for local fishermen to survive on. We also hear that he took a ship worth six million last week, but goes silent when Phillips asks him why he is here, then. Small negotiations like asking for a sip of water become monumental, and Muse's compatriots are clearly less on board with the imperative to keep Phillips alive.
Now I'm going to tell you the end, which you may wish not to know, so take heed. In one of the film's best moments, they guys are all arguing on the lifeboat when BAM, there is a sustained foghorn blast and lights flood in from outside. The next shot shows the lifeboat dwarfed by a massive Navy ship, and the whole thing seems like a giant spaceship just landed next door. The Somalis are then, and for the remainder of the film, up against the grim, practiced efficiency of the US Military and its overwhelming force. Greengrass constantly cuts back and forth between the unorganized Somalis with their yelling and the steadfast procedure of the Navy. In one aspect, the film becomes a Navy rescue procedural. The film is not unkind to the Navy, but it's hard to forget that the Navy will kill Phillips rather than let him get to Somalia, and that they aren't doing any of this out of the good of their hearts, or concern for Phillips, but because the US cannot let the pirates win. He is as much of a pawn as anyone else, and is just lucky it is in the Navy's interests to rescue him.
You probably know that Phillips gets rescued. But Greengrass smartly includes a coda--devastatingly emotional, btw--in which Phillips, once rescued, goes into shock, and all the emotion he's held in check until then comes pouring out. I suspect the commentary on US cold-blooded efficiency continues as person after person asks Phillips "Are you okay?" when okay is really not quite the word, and is met with a nasal "Awesome," when replying that he is uninjured. Anyway, you'll need Kleenex for this part.
< < < SPOILERS END
So the film is structured like an essay, which can make the screenplay sometimes stilted, but one appreciates that it has points and is carefully calibrated. There is comment about how everyone, everywhere are pawns of global capitalism, but the biggest impression is contrasting the small, low-tech efforts of the Somalis with the overwhelming force of the US Military. There's not much more comment than that, but it supplies you with a lot of smart comparisons to form your own impression. That's what is most impressive: that it delivers the thrills and the emotional, suspenseful story, but also presents a great deal of smart, carefully-assembled images that don't so much make an overt statement as force YOU to ponder what you think about what you're seeing.
Some critics have said interest flags because we know how the story ends, which is partially true (and thus the procedural aspect), but there's so much more going on in terms of the film's presentation and the power of the images it is showing, it turns out to be a minor issue. There is also criticism that the Somalis come off as the creepy "other," the scary ooga-booga natives, which the script has obviously taken extreme pains to dispel, but I think is just a natural by-product of watching this film as an American. And the contrast of Somali smallness with implacable military might also directly responds to this.
So: smart film. Really smart. Much smarter and more interesting, with an intelligent and informed point of view, than I expected. Now it makes we want to see Greengrass' United 93, about 9/11, because I think he would actually bring a very savvy perspective to it. In the meantime, go see this. It's very involving and satisfying as a movie, while also leaving one with a lot to think about and mull over.
Yes! It gives both visceral and intellectual satisfaction.