If, like me, you can’t help but love action movies, then you may have noticed a recent trend in the way they’re made. No, I’m not talking about CGI—although computer-generated effects have certainly come to dominate action movies as well, and rarely with good results. I’m talking instead about the ‘shaky-cam’ technique, as I’ve often heard it described, in which we watch the action through handheld cameras constantly jumping and swerving around, never staying in one place (or on the same shot) for more than a second or two. A scene filmed in this way is certainly exciting, but it can often feel disappointing as soon as it ends, as you find yourself struggling to reconstruct exactly what you just saw. It’s exhilarating in the same way that wiping out hard on a surfboard is presumably kind of exhilarating—not because you’re watching cool stuff happen, but because your senses are scrambled and you’re not sure which way is up.
Which is a shame, because the shaky-cam technique can be deeply compelling when properly deployed. No working filmmaker has a better track record of doing so that the British director Paul Greengrass, and for me, the movie in which the elements of his style combine most powerfully is Captain Phillips (2013) about the real-life attack on the container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009. It presents a slightly condensed but meticulous reconstruction of all sides of the incident, from the pirates’ initial pursuit and capture of the ship to the U.S. Navy’s mission to rescue its captain, Richard Phillips, whom the pirates had taken hostage aboard a lifeboat. More so that Greengrass’s previous movies, there’s also a strong undercurrent of humanism in Billy Ray’s script, which, combined with Greengrass’s journalistic instincts, results in a survival-kidnapping thriller that’s uncommonly empathetic towards everyone involved, and contains a profound (if largely implicit) message about the dynamics of power and privilege in today’s densely interconnected world.
The deeper implications are easy to miss on a first viewing, because Greengrass uses his jittery cinematography and rapid-fire editing keep the tension cranked up even during relative lulls in the story. But, as always, the chaos is carefully controlled; he’s a gifted director of action, with an instinctive feel for when to cut and where to place the camera to ensure coherence amid all that manic motion. After all, there’s nothing new or insidious about shooting handheld. It’s been around pretty much as long as the equipment has been light enough to allow it, and the increasing maneuverability of cameras has been instrumental in the development of film as an art form, allowing productions to move more easily into real locations and proving especially valuable to documentary filmmakers, who need to be able to follow their subjects in real time. Indeed, the idea that handheld cinematography equals realism has its roots in the ‘cinéma vérité’ school of documentary filmmaking that emerged in the 60s and 70s, which made frequent use of handheld cameras as it sought to portray the subject as objectively and unobtrusively as possible. This is probably how most directors, if asked, would defend the shaky-cam technique: it makes you feel like you are the cameraman, right alongside the action. Yet without the keen spatial awareness of someone like Greengrass, the results tend not to be exciting so much as chaotic and confusing.
It’s tempting to blame Greengrass for the recent outbreak of shaky-cam in action filmmaking, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair—it’s not his fault that no one else (so far) has proved able to use the technique quite as well as he can. He started out directing programs for a British news channel, and you can see those origins in most of his feature films, which tend to be fact-based dramas depicting episodes of recent history. So it’s hardly surprising that he would develop a mostly handheld, quasi-documentary style of filmmaking; when carefully executed, it’s the perfect stylistic choice for that sort of subject matter. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that he rose to international prominence as the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, two of the most consistently thrilling (but decidedly fictional) action movies of the 2000s.[i]
But perhaps not; I would argue that Greengrass’s journalistic sensibility is actually an important factor in those movies’ success. In his Bourne films (and in Doug Liman’s original, it should be noted), there is action and violence aplenty, but death, when it happens, is a somber event—decidedly not part of the fun. The thrill comes instead from simple kinetics, from watching people and things in rapid and spectacular motion. (I’m still waiting for him to make a sports movie; Paul Greengrass filming a hockey game would be absolutely bananas.) And the shaky-cam style works equally well at keeping an audience on edge in his more recent, less action-centric thrillers, like Bloody Sunday (2002), about a massacre in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and United 93 (2006), a slow-building heart-attack of a movie about the eponymous flight that fought back against the hijackers on 9/11.
Anyway, back to Captain Phillips: the movie begins predictably enough, with merchant marine captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) at his home in Vermont, preparing to head out on his next assignment. He and his wife drive to the airport, having an unduly portentous conversation about the rapidly changing world around them. It’s a good thing all this comes early, because it’s by far the weakest part of the movie. It criminally wastes a talented actress (Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife), the dialogue is clunky and excessively on the nose, and Hanks’ Boston accent remains woefully inadequate.[ii] This opening could certainly have been done better, but it nevertheless serves an important purpose in the narrative: it introduces us to the broader milieu that the Phillips’ inhabit. Their house is slightly cramped, but it’s cozy and situated in a beautiful, safe place. They voice concerns that reflect a certain degree of privilege, but are neither trivial nor unfounded. They both work hard and have a comfortable life to show for it. They’re not rich, but in a fundamental sense, the world economy is working for them.
But in the very next scene, Greengrass signals that this movie is about more than a decent American everyman victimized by nefarious foreigners. In an intentionally jarring transition, we suddenly find ourselves in a fishing village on the Somali coast, where political chaos and depleted fish stocks have left the inhabitants brutally impoverished. The world economy is emphatically not working here, to the point that young men are desperate to sign up for an almost suicidally dangerous job: holding ships for ransom in the service of the local warlord. The nervously roving camera captures the chaotic, crowded scene on the beach, but it also lingers on the pirate leader Abduwali Muse, allowing the first-time actor Barkhad Abdi to telegraph a great deal about the character even as he says very little. Muse is intimidating despite his slight build—an embodiment of the axiom that nothing is more dangerous than a young man with a gun and little to lose—but from the start, Abdi also establishes him as a respected and shrewdly perceptive leader.
Greengrass keeps up that equality of attention as the story begins to ramp up, continuing to highlight the contrasts between the characters. Phillips arrives at the Port of Salalah in Oman, a sprawling metropolis of shipping containers stacked in massive blocks, and sets out on the Alabama, itself as tall as a several-story building. Meanwhile, Muse and another pirate crew launch a couple of battered skiffs with aging outboard motors into heavy surf—no mean feat in itself. We see Phillips scrolling through some foreboding email notices about pirate activity in the area and learn that he’s a bit of a hard-ass out at sea, the kind of boss who wields his authority with stern bluntness and doesn’t much care about the crew grumbling behind his back. Then we’re back with the pirates, where a rivalry is developing between Muse and the macho-posturing leader of the other crew as they search their radar screen for targets. The characters are still worlds apart, but Greengrass films them similarly, drawing—or at least indicating—parallels between them even before they first encounter each other.
In a fortunate twist of fate, the real-life sequence of events allows Greengrass to explore this dynamic still further before the two parties inevitably meet. The first time the pirates make a run at the ship, they fail, thwarted by rough seas and their motor cutting out at the last moment. It’s a sensational miniature chase sequence, its impact magnified by being shot (like the rest of the movie) using real boats on the real ocean. Phillips, already established as a humorless but solidly competent seaman, is also shown to be a wily quarry, manipulating the Alabama’s wake to make trouble for the pirates’ small craft and faking a radio conversation with a Navy warship, knowing that the pirates will be listening.[iii] At the same time, we see that the pirates are adept mariners in their own right, navigating through the huge waves and the churning wake in a tiny open boat at breakneck speed. Anyone who has been out on the open sea in a similarly small vessel can appreciate the skill and cojones required to pull that off. Muse in particular is shown to be audaciously brave; he pushes on despite hearing Phillips’ phony call for an air strike, and later, when the feud between the two crews boils over, he doesn’t flinch when a gun is pulled on him, calmly staring his rival down until he can slip his fingers around a wrench and knock the guy out.
Once again, the cinematography does more than maintain tension; it highlights both the contrasts and the similarities between the Alabama and the repurposed fishing trawler that serves as the pirates’ mother ship. The handheld camera hovers restlessly but is unable to move around much in the interior spaces, which are similarly cramped on both ships. Yet this closeness also calls our attention to the obvious contrasts: the utilitarian but pristine Alabama, with its relatively spacious bridge and expansive views of the ocean, against the derelict fishing boat with its grimy, dimly lit cabin and aging machinery. At the same time, these cramped close-ups, along with a few choice aerial shots in which both ships appear equally tiny and insignificant against the vast expanse of the open ocean, are crucial in conveying a deeper, almost subconscious sense of unease that persists throughout the movie. The two groups represent vastly different cross-sections of humanity, but everyone, however competent they may be out at sea, is by their very nature out of their element. This whole story is set in an environment that remains largely alien and mysterious to us despite being central to human life for thousands of years. The conflict is entirely interpersonal, but it occurs in a place where people fundamentally do not belong.
Things kick into high gear when the pirates make their second, successful attempt to board the ship, and while it would be tedious to examine every nuance and twist, it should be noted that the story encompasses several distinct types of suspenseful narrative. There’s another wild chase sequence, in which the pirates manage to get a ladder on the side of the ship and climb aboard. Thereafter, the nature of the suspense changes, becoming more of an interpersonal standoff when the pirates arrive at the bridge and the two contrasting worlds come jarringly face-to-face.[iv] There’s a period of cat-and-mouse tension as Phillips and others try to keep the pirates from discovering the rest of the crew. And finally, the pirates escape with Phillips in the lifeboat, and we have the multi-layered suspense of a hostage scenario—with Phillips, the pirates, and soon the U.S. Navy all maneuvering to try and come out on top of an increasingly fraught situation. The handheld, up-close cinematography adds to the tension in ways we’ve already explored, but its consistency also provides a crucial sense of narrative continuity as the story progresses through these different settings and varieties of suspense.
However, there are also moments sprinkled throughout the story where Greengrass pulls back and gives us a larger view. With each movie, he seems to get a bit better at this: judiciously settling his camera down and allowing us to take stock of the situation before things hurtle into motion again. Nor does it always mean pulling back for a wide shot; in a wonderfully strange moment just after the pirates’ engine dies, Phillips and Muse stare at each other through binoculars, still in their separate vessels but momentarily close enough to see each other quite clearly, hinting at the rivalry and tenuous understanding that will eventually develop between them. In moments like these, Greengrass plays with scale in compelling ways that add new depth to the movie. The aerial shots of the ships against the vastness of the open ocean are just one example. Amid the mayhem of the second chase sequence, the Alabama, ringed by protective jets of water from its fire hoses, looms like a skyscraper over the small skiff, making the pirates that much more intimidating by showing what a perversely impressive feat they pull off in boarding the ship. After a long time spent in the tight confines of the ship’s interior, the pirates take Phillips hostage amid a lot of shouting and confusion, and then there’s an instant of dread-filled silence as the lifeboat detaches from its cradle and plunges at least fifteen feet into the water, signaling that things have deteriorated to a new level of uncertainty and desperation, for the pirates as well as Phillips.
And when the Navy arrives on the scene, the wild disparity between the tiny, pod-like lifeboat and the huge warships allows Greengrass to create some memorably unusual images, underscoring not just how dangerous, but how bizarre the situation has become. With no other points of reference, the first destroyer grows alarmingly quickly out of the darkness; the pirates open the hatch and find the view entirely filled by the bulk of the nearby ship. Later, the camera swoops over the lifeboat, relatively prominent in the foreground, to reveal the (now three) warships, their colossal size becoming more apparent as we get closer. Shots like these, while brief, are crucial in creating the distinctive tone that Greengrass maintains throughout the movie. We hope for the mission to succeed, but when we pull back, the scope of it starts to look slightly absurd: the most advanced navy in the world deploying thousands of personnel, the latest technological wizardry, and untold millions of dollars against a single lifeboat with four enemies, all to rescue one hostage.
It’s never suggested that all this isn’t justified; indeed, the movie shows that as a military operation, it’s brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. In one of my favorite slow-down moments, when the destroyer has the lifeboat under tow, the camera travels the full length of the rope linking the two vessels, underscoring the difficulty of what the SEALs are about to do. Think about it: snipers simultaneously hit three moving targets through the tiny windows of a vessel that’s pitching and rolling on the ocean—without hurting a hostage in the same confined space. It’s as straightforward a case of heroic military rescue as we’re ever likely to see, but Greengrass portrays it without the usual sense of triumph. All the action-thriller elements are there—powerful ships and heavy machinery, special forces parachuting out of planes, even a neat little gadget that lets the SEALs hear what’s going on in the lifeboat—but Greengrass doesn’t celebrate them in the way other filmmakers might. The mission is exciting to watch, but Greengrass still treats the violent results with appropriate gravity. When it’s over, there are no cheers or sighs of relief—just the blindfolded Phillips freaking out and the SEALs calmly packing up their gear, having completed their work. The U.S. military comes across as a terrifically effective but largely impersonal organization, a manifestation of the powerful forces that Phillips, along with everyone else lucky enough to live in a country like the United States, have arrayed to protect them at all times, wherever they are in the world.
The pirates, coming from a small and impoverished nation, have no such forces protecting them; indeed, their only backup flees when confronted with the armada deployed to protect Phillips. Yet the attention paid to them by Ray’s screenplay and Greengrass’s direction ensures that they don’t come across as straightforward villains. They remain dangerous and unpredictable, and we always fear for Phillips’ safety, but we also understand their mounting panic and confusion as the situation spirals out of their control.[v] And one of the tragic ironies of the story is that the big impersonal military arrives just as Phillips and his captors are starting to reach a place of greater understanding. He sympathizes with Muse’s predicament: injured, exhausted, and desperately trying to keep control over a deteriorating situation while maintaining the composure of someone firmly in command. He appeals to their common experience in trying to convince Muse to surrender, and registers a flicker of grudging respect for his refusal to give up. Hanks and Abdi masterfully convey the nuances of this dynamic, especially in their remarkable last scene together. Muse has a gun to Phillips’s head, but at this point more than any other, they seem to be facing each other down as equally complex, evenly matched adversaries. Over the course of the movie, Muse has shown himself to be dangerous but not cruel, shrewdly diffusing multiple situations that threaten to get someone killed. Yet as he holds the gun to Phillips’s head, we believe that he’s capable of pulling the trigger, and Phillips calls him out accordingly, rejecting the idea that he’s simply a fisherman forced into a life of crime. At the same time, it’s clear that Phillips is not simply a decent, pacific captive. He’s a canny opponent when still in command of the Alabama, and once captured, he makes every possible attempt to escape. It’s never explicitly stated, but we get the sense that Phillips and Muse each recognize a bit of their own tenacity and fierce determination in the other—that maybe, had history played out differently, they could have found themselves in a similar situation with their roles reversed. They’ve ended up where they are mostly because of their origins. It’s a subtle but compelling illustration of the kind of privilege that has been much discussed recently; the difference between Phillips and Muse is the difference between a well-off kid whose parents have the resources to help him out in an emergency, and a poor kid without that security.
Captain Phillips has a clear protagonist whom we can’t help but root for (he’s played by Tom Hanks, after all), but Greengrass presents the pirates who attack him and the military that helps him in such a way that the movie doesn’t feel like a story of good vs. evil. All of the characters have understandable motivations, and everyone makes reasonable arguments. An indignant Alabama crewman is right that they have neither the training nor the financial incentive to confront the pirates, and Phillips is right that they don’t have much choice—running won’t make them any safer. Muse is right that chaos and lawlessness have left his crew with no other options, and Phillips is right that he’s “not just a fisherman.” Phillips is right that the pirates could’ve taken the $30,000 and avoided confrontation with the Navy, and Muse is right that it wouldn’t have been enough for his bosses. Even the borderline-psychotic Najee, at the end, is right that no tribal elders are coming to negotiate a deal, and although the military’s response is brutal, it’s hard to think of what else they could’ve done in that moment.
By emphasizing these ambiguities, Greengrass presents the incident instead as a tragedy, enacted by the individual players but beyond the control of any one person. Highlighting the danger and unnatural remoteness of the open ocean setting, he implies that this is being driven just as much by the powerful and obscure forces that make our deeply interconnected world turn—the global economy that leaves some people secure while others starve, and the attendant power dynamics that result in some lives being valued more highly than others. Meanwhile, the shaky-cam ends up having a democratizing effect; by filming everyone in the same nervous style, it implies that everyone, even the coolly competent military, is being swept up and co-opted by these obscure forces. No reasonable person would accuse Phillips and his working-class crew of having too much or admonish the military for doing everything they can to save them, but nor would one claim that the Somalis don’t deserve the same comfort and security. The tragedy is that they wind up pitted against each other, with predictably violent results.
Which is not to say that this isn’t still a fantastically exciting and entertaining movie. With Greengrass’s shaky camerawork and frenetic editing, the story unfolds with the natural urgency of water racing downhill, flowing so easily that it feels like it couldn’t have been filmed any other way—which isn’t the case all. In a movie so tightly focused and relentlessly intense, it can be easy to miss the underlying complexities, but Greengrass manages to explore them with a great deal of depth, making Captain Phillips into a quietly extraordinary piece of work.
© Harrison Swan, 2019
[i] He also directed the series sort-of reboot Jason Bourne a few years ago, with odd results. All the reliable pieces seemed to be in place—Bourne tearing around the world, improvising unlikely weapons and escapes in exotic locales; CIA spooks in a darkened office, tracking him with a dizzying array of high-tech gadgets, with a bit of intra-agency intrigue to spice things up; the discovery of new tidbits about Bourne’s dark past—and yet the result somehow wasn’t nearly as compelling as those earlier entries. Greengrass’s actions sequences remain as jaw-dropping as ever, though—a potent reminder of what the shaky-cam technique is capable of in the right hands.
[ii] To be fair, very few actors can successfully pull that off, and in any case, it quickly becomes much less pronounced—subtle regional accents have a way of receding when you’re stressed out and/or terrified, as Hanks’ character is for most of the movie.
[iii] In a small but significant departure from the true story, Ray’s screenplay and Greengrass’s direction choose to omit the fact that Phillips’ competence could sometimes slide into bravado—in real life, he took the Alabama within 300 miles of the Somali coast despite an advisory to stay at least 600 miles offshore. It’s too bad this wasn’t included in some way, because showing more of that side of him would have made Phillips a more interesting character, and because Phillips’s stated reason for doing so (that there was no guarantee that they’d be any safer at 600 miles out, and that he simply wanted to get through the area as fast as he could) strikes me as pretty reasonable.
[iv] In a clever bit of directorial manipulation, Greengrass didn’t allow the two groups of actors to meet until they shot that scene, lending an extra jolt of realism to the shock, fear, and uncertainty on the faces of Hanks and the other Western actors when the pirates barge in.
[v] Significantly, they’ve also run out of khat, the plant that many people in that part of the world chew for its amphetamine-like effects: increased energy and (crucially, in an impoverished place) suppressed appetite. On top of the inherent stress of the situation, they’re basically in mild withdrawal—no wonder their nerves are frayed to the breaking point.