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I think there are two ways you can do a film that is based on historic life-or-death events: either the story is sufficiently obscure, so you can expect the majority of your audience not to know about the outcome. Then you make the average thriller, ignoring the event’s real-life foundations. Or the story is widely known, then you will need to find an approach to telling that story that makes it independent of its outcome, transcends the facts to tell a larger story that is appealing independent of whether you know the result. This is quite a feat, and some of the results (whether you like the films or not) are memorable: Cameron’s “Titanic”, Howard’s “Apollo 13”, or more recently Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” I would call successful attempts at the latter approach. There are more examples for the former, including many where the story is based on some literary source, which in the same way determines the outcome.

Captain Phillips, I feel, could not decide which way to go. I learned that an American regular news audience will know the story of the Maerks Alabama quite well, as it has been widely covered in the local news at the time. Either I just missed it, or it has slipped my mind since, or it just was not as big a story in the rest of the world. I did not know or remember how the story of a bunch of Somali pirates hijacking a massive container vessel near the horn of Africa played out. Until, that is, somebody told me in a movie review just a day before I planned to see the film  …

This can only be guesswork now, but I think it would have been a perfectly workable thriller had I not known the end in advance. As I had the misfortune of stumbling across that review, the second half, which focuses the action in an isolated place and is exclusively about whether or not the Captain will get out of this in one piece, did not work at all for me. I felt bored. Of course there is a certain level of action and thrill when Greengrass gets his fingers on uniforms and a shaky camera. But that kind of heightens the feeling of all this is much ado about nothing, as nothing new will be revealed to me in the end.

Having perceived this as I did, I suppose I must judge the film to be just not of the same quality as the mentioned examples where the known result did not affect the pleasure of viewing. I seem to understand what Greengrass is doing, he closes in on the individual fate of the Captain’s fear and suffering, he intends to tell the story from the inside perspective. It was not working for me, though, as he too often distracted me from that personal  story by fetishising about the military machinery moving into place. I could appreciate the acting (of Hanks, and also of some of his Somali counterparts, even though I am not chiming in with the chorus of highest praise for Barkhad Abdi’s breakout performance. It was not bad.), but kept my distance.

What did not help my reception of “Captain Phillips” was that just recently I had seen “A Hijacking”, which does exactly what Greengrass would have needed to do: focus on the claustrophobia, the fear, and the persons suffering it. No, Greengrass actually would have needed to do that more urgently, as his story was rather well known, while the Danish one was fiction (I think).

So whatever the reasons, I was a bit disappointed and bored by the film, and I am slowly starting to get annoyed by the visual style of Greengrass and his DP Barry Ackroyd. As remarked by Mark Kermode a couple of times: About time somebody gets him a camera tripod for Christmas.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/captain_phillips/

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