by Steve Habrat
In 2006, director Paul Greengrass proved that he was an artist capable of handling sensitive true-life material with United 93, the controversial first Hollywood movie of the 9/11 attacks. Through his shaky, vérité approach, Greengrass made the film feel as real as possible, almost like he was God himself ripping the top of that doomed plane off and peering inside at those passengers until the last crushing second. It was unbearably intense, emotional, and most of all, fearless. Seven years later, Greengrass delivers another scorcher with Captain Phillips, the true story about the 2009 attack on the Maersk Alabama by a small band of Somali pirates. Retaining the fly-on-the-wall approach and tightening the intensity to point where you almost yell “uncle,” Captain Phillips in an arresting thriller with plenty of raw performances from a well-known veteran and a handful of scrappy new comers who jump at the chance to bear their fangs. The suspense is high when we’re on board of the Maersk Alabama, but Greengrass puts your nerves to the test when the action shifts from the narrow passages of the cargo freighter to the cramped conditions of a life boat.
Captain Phillips introduces us to Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), who is preparing to sail the massive cargo freighter Maersk Alabama to Mombasa. After securing the ship and plotting a course with first mate Shane Murphy (played by Michael Chernus), the freighter sets out through waters plagued by pirate activity. Meanwhile in Somalia, two small groups of pirates are gearing up to take to the seas and attempt to highjack a ship. Leading one of these groups is Abduwali Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), a skinny but determined pirate who handpicks Bilal (played by Barkhad Abdirahman), Elmi (played by Mahat M. Ali), and Najee (played by Faysal Ahmed) to accompany him on the mission. The Maersk Alabama’s voyage begins smooth enough, but soon, Phillips notices warnings about pirate activity in the waters that he is sailing. During a routine safety drill, Phillips notices two small skiffs approaching the freighter. With no weapons on board, Phillips alerts the UK Maritime Trade Operations, who advise him to arm the freighter’s firehouses in case these are indeed pirates. Due to the high waves of the freighter’s wake, the pirates are unable to catch up to the Maersk Alabama. The crew members of the freighter believe the threat is over, but the next day, the pirates return and are even more determined to get on board.
Bringing the same heart-pounding suspense that he brought to all of his other previous projects, Greengrass kicks things off by allowing us intimate glimpses inside the lives of both Phillips and Muse. Phillips worries aloud to his wife, Andrea (played by Catherine Keener), about the future of their children. He expresses concern over them finding jobs in a world that has become increasingly cutthroat. Greengrass then hops over to Somalia, where Muse faces a group of mercenaries that demand that they highjack a ship for a warlord named Garaad. Villagers crowd the mercenaries for a chance to jump aboard the skiffs and assist in the taking of a grand vessel. Greengrass is showing us that there is competition and desperation everywhere, and in some places, you’re reduced to carrying out life threatening business to make money. From here, the tension slowly mounts as you count the seconds before the highjacking. A small blip on the radar screen causes you to squirm and your grip will tighten on the armrest when the pirates finally manage to latch a ladder onto the side of the freighter. When Muse and his men spill over the side of the boat, you may need a constant reminder to breathe as bullets fly, threats are made, tempers flare, and the crew of the Maersk Alabama quietly plot how to take back their ship without weapons. It’s exhilarating and exhausting just watching them.
As Captain Phillips progresses to the confinement of that dreaded lifeboat, Greengrass proves once again that he is a master of keeping the action tight and engaging in a cramped space. Phillips tries everything to convince his captors that there is no way out of the situation they have gotten themselves into, but desperation prevails despite the fact that the Navy closing in on all sides. It’s inside this lifeboat that the performances from Hanks and Abdi burst into flames. Hanks is simultaneously cooperative and plotting against his captors. He tries a friendly approach while never letting his guard down for a second. While the testy Najee constantly argues that they should kill Phillips, Abdi’s Muse reveals a softer side. With Muse, it is simply business and he is playing the hand he has been dealt. Overall, while you may go in knowing the outcome of this extraordinary event, Captain Phillips excels in the finer details. Just how did those SEALS manage to fire off those incredible shots that ended the ordeal? What must it have been like to be stuffed inside the stifling lifeboat with an AK-47 stuck in your face? How did Phillips initially handle the situation when the Muse and his men stormed the bridge? It’s all there drenched in an unmatchable intensity and an unshakable realism that sends you away gasping for air. Bravo, Mr. Greengrass!
by Steve Habrat
I think I speak for a good majority of people when I say that the announcement that Hollywood was going to release not one, but two motion pictures in the same year that dealt with an event that was so catastrophic, the wound hadn’t even begun to scab, was quite a shock. It left me with a mixture of skepticism and anger. Is this just a scheme to capitalize on a horrorific event that left thousands dead and their family members grieving for years to come? Should we really be making blockbuster pictures out of a senseless act of terrorism? But after watching United 93, the terrifyingly real account of what took place in the sky aboard the plane that didn’t reach it’s intended target, was at once delicate with it’s subject matter and uncompromisingly unflinching. It lacked a specific stance on terror and instead presented real people up against other real people and stands as a testament to unity and heroism. It helps that director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) shot the film in a documentary-esque manner and casted a slew of no name actors and a few of the prominent individuals who were mixed up in the chaos that day. The film works because of its prodigious realism.
To sum up of the film would be a waste of time because everyone is familiar with what happened aboard United Flight 93. I was worried that United 93 would become a product that was interested simply in dramatized entertainment and would easily prey on the raw emotions of it’s viewers. Yet it’s told-in-real-time approach mounts the tension to unbearable heights, just as if we were transported back to that sunny day in September and had our eyes glued to the unfolding news all over again. The gut-wrenching terror just kept elevating and we couldn’t help but ask ourselves, “How can this get any worse?” It slyly shrouds the audience in dread by its structure and not simply on subject matter alone. This would be an easy way out and Greengrass is well aware of it. United 93, however, lingers on its characters a bit. It allows us to get to know them and lets us know that these heroes are no different than us. One man is late for his flight and is scrambling at the last minute to get aboard the doomed flight. We see documentary-esque shots of the behind the scenes activity that the flight crew went through that very day. We know how this will turnout, but this normalcy is weirdly comforting.
Hand-in-hand with the normal routines of the American citizens, we see the ritual of the terrorists that fateful morning. We see them praying, reading from the Quran, and shaving. The film humanizes the monsters. They even dress like us and putting ourselves into the mind frame we possessed before that horrible day, we wouldn’t even look twice at their routine actions. Were they really any different than us? In the beginning, when the flight is departing, there is a foreboding scene in which one of the hijackers glances out at the still intact World Trade Center looming in the distance. You can’t escape the trepidation and judging by the expression on the hijackers face, all traces of a rational, peaceful human being diminishes and the hints of a monster leaks through. They cease to be average and personify evil in the blink of an eye. It mirrors our view of the day. What only several minutes ago seemed normal has been engulfed by evil. When they are on the verge of hijacking the flight, they argue with one another about when the proper time to overtake the flight. One even appears to have a case of cold feet. It suggests that they still may have clung to some distant strand of fear. And possibly fleeting humanity.
This film should also be hailed for the careful and reverential direction form Paul Greengrass. For a project this risky, Greengrass never lets a frame of this film feel unnatural or exploitative. It could have so easily fallen victim to either one. Instead, Greengrass gives us the facts and nothing more. The film is never romanticized, singling out any one character. Instead, the film focuses on a group that we root for, the unified good. You’ll find yourself fighting the urge to leap out of your chair and cheer them on when they make their stand. The group the we empathize with, which consists of the terrified passengers who are unable to fight back and instead make heartbreaking phone calls and say their final “I love you”s and goodbyes. You’ll be left biting your lip and fighting off tears for these individuals–ones who did not deserve the fate that ultimately claimed their lives. The outburst of violence at the end (which is, as we know, inevitable) is disquieting and gory, but his camera doesn’t revel in the violence. It’s necessary and even those who are usually turned off by violence this extreme in a motion picture will find themselves pushing through it.
The film’s extreme realism also stems from the casting in the film. It lacks a familiar face from Hollywood’s A-List. This choice at times makes the film almost uncomfortable to watch because it feels as if Greengrass ripped the top off the real plane off and stuck a camera inside so we can see actual events taking place. Real pilots and flight attendants portray the flight crew in the film and he even cast individuals who were actually there that day and watching the events play out. The most notable one is of course Ben Sliney, the FAA’s National Operations Manager who made the call to ground all flights. The unknown actors do an unbelievable job and are amazingly convincing.
United 93 is, without question, a comfort blanket of a film. It soothes us with the fact that while September 11th, 2001 felt like a hopeless day, we did fight back and lives were saved. We can take solace in the fact that even though we were pushed, we did push back. This is a fact that I think is sometimes sadly overlooked. These people gave their lives to save countless others and kudos to this film for recognizing them. It also acts as a cathartic experience that should be seen by all, but it should not be approached lightly. You should emotionally prepare yourself for what is to come. You will emerge from the film shaken up, there is no doubt about that, but you will feel uplifted. Even as we hit the ten-year anniversary of the attacks, it still feels as if it were yesterday. It acknowledges the fact that even though evil won that day, good still made a ripple. United 93 is a triumph because it chooses not to focus on one face, but the face of many, and what the face of many can do is simply extraordinary. Grade: A+
United 93 is now available on Blu-ray.