Life in a Nutshell

Film review: Captain Phillips (Director: Paul Greengrass)

By Sascha Krieger

There are some who say that the most important part of a film is its ending. Examples of films which have been all but destroyed by the way they end are legion. Much rarer are the cases of films that really come into their own at the very end. Luckily, Captain Phillips, based on the much publicized case of the 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship off the Somalian coast, is part of the latter, considerably smaller group. After his rescue, Phillips (Tom Hanks in his strongest performance in years) is taken in by highly efficient and well-trained Navy personnel who perform routine checks, ask routine questions, follow routine protocol. Phillips, however, who we have just watched for two hours working like a well-oiled survival machine, a master at adapting to any change of situation, a great tactician and relentless fighter, has turned into a zombie-like shell: words fail him, simple movements and motions become impossibly complicated. The puzzled bewilderment, the gaping hole the instinct to survive has left, contrast drastically with the self-congratulatory air of everyone else to who this has just been a successful operation. To Phillips, this is his life.

And so the ever-moving handheld camera, efficiently industrious, full of unchecked energy clashes with the image of a soul that has come to a brutal halt, a personal world that has stopped turning, a heart that has skipped a beat. And all of a sudden, the same look that has just been supportive and empathic is now voyeuristic, indecent, intrusive. For the well-made thriller has revealed something existential, something essential to human nature. A primal fear and helplessness that we are so good at covering up. This ending, this emptying face will remain when everything else about this film has disappeared. And there is quite a lot to this. For the previous two hours Captain Phillips has been a gripping thriller, a claustrophobic clash of human desires and fears and needs whose space grows ever tighter: from two separate locations to a ship, a bridge, a cellar-like engine room to a tiny closed lifeboat that looks grotesquely pathetic compared to the war machinery the Navy has brought.

Yet inside, all of human drama takes place: there’s power and powerlessness, brutality and fear, despair and hope, the first world and the third, all enclosed in literally, a nutshell. And pretty evenly distributed among the hijackers and the victims, the guilty and the innocent. There is no black or white, only the gray, the pale, ghost-like hue of the indifferent sea and sky, a vast unthinking universe in which life is merely an afterthought. They have to deal with each other: the confident, experience, smart Phillips and the aggressive, skinny, helpless Muse (Barkhad Abdi in a haunting, memorable performance). Two lost souls whose final bewilderment in the face of deadly efficiency reveals them as inhabitants of the same planet without unduly shifting guilt. Yes, the highjacker turned kidnapper is guilty, yes he is a criminal deserving of punishment, but first and foremost, he is human, just like his prisoner. There are no monsters in this battle of wills in which both are pawns as well as actors, swept around by the tides while taking responsibility and making decisions.

The camera is always close, hardly ever still, reflecting the hectic twists and turns of this duel, this frantic battle to survive. Captain Phillips thrives on Paul Greengrass’ excellent direction, his impeccable timing, the documentary-like camera work, the hypnotic rhythm and gripping editing, the clear, pale, matter-of-factly imagery. Yes, it is a thriller and a highly efficient one. But it is one that moves from outward suspense to inner drama, just as the space narrows the inner battles come to the forefront. No matter if captain or crew or kidnappers: in the end, they all want to survive, their own worst enemy is fear. Which is ultimately the film’s chief protagonist: Captain Phillips is a film about fear, about what it does to people, no matter on what side of the processes that create the fear they appear to be. Its destructive force as well as its ability to bring out a strength hitherto unsuspected, have never been more visible, its angels and devils never clearer, the key role it plays in all of human existence, never been more obvious. And its power to be at its strongest when it seems to have been overcome. It may be paralyzing, shutting down all normal processes, putting existence on stand-by. Yet it will reboot, Phillips will go to sea again, Muse will find a way to survive, to continue. And so will we. Not less fearful, but, maybe, just a tiny little bit wiser.

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