Road to Perdition (2002)

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the 20th century. I’ve always found it fascinating, as so many others have and probably always will, given how much significant stuff happened and how well documented it is, compared to earlier historical periods. I’m not a history buff, and for me it’s always been a layman’s interest, low-key and not very sharply focused. But it has, perhaps inevitably, been supercharged in the past year and a half. Nowadays, any time before Covid belongs to a bygone age of innocence, and the years before the new millennium…come on, now. Of course, my rational mind knows it’s not ancient history—I was, after all, born in the 20th century, deep enough to remember a bit of it—but now more than ever, it seems like the days of yore, more similar to the murky, distant past than the world we live in.

Tom Hanks, director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, and the rest of their collaborators obviously couldn’t have foreseen the Covid pandemic—or the Trump presidency, or the rise of social media, or any of the other phenomena that now make the early 20th century feel so far removed from the present. But that fact is, I think, a key reason why Road to Perdition, the solidly good Depression-era gangster movie they all made in 2002, remains so appealing today.

It was only Mendes’s second feature, but he had been a prominent stage director in England since the late 80s, and his debut, American Beauty (1999), had been a massive success, winning several of the most prestigious Academy Awards. (In more ways than one, that movie hasn’t aged particularly well, but it remains an impressive display of Mendes’s skill.) He’s been a dependable, respectable fixture in the industry ever since, making mostly good movies at a measured, steady pace. He made two well-received dramas, Jarhead (2005) and Revolutionary Road (2008), then a sweet-tempered dramedy, Away We Go (2009) that I, like some critics, found unremarkable, and more than a little smug. He made one of the best James Bond movies of all time, Skyfall (2012), promptly followed by one of the worst, Spectre (2015), of which only the spectacular opening tracking shot is worth seeing.[i] Most recently, he went all in on that concept with 1917 (2019), a First World War movie whose single-take conceit was so technically stunning its other elements were not so much overshadowed as rendered practically irrelevant. His work has been criticized, with some justification, as excessively deliberate and composed, holding the emotional core of the story at arm’s length. But it’s impossible to deny his great talents, both as a director of actors (most stars seem eager to work with him, and he guides almost all of them to fantastic performances) and as an elegant visual stylist with a keen eye for detail.

So it is with Road to Perdition, which, unlike some movies I write about here, I wouldn’t call a spotless masterpiece, sublime from start to finish. One could take issue with its rather cold and clinical approach to the story, for example; or with its conception of some supporting characters and the resulting performances: Jude Law as the twisted freelance killer Maguire, and Daniel Craig as the hotheaded Connor Rooney; or with the way that a random but important elderly couple, and the perfunctory episode where the protagonists recuperate at their farm, end up feeling somewhat shoehorned into the larger narrative. Still, these are minor flaws, and all are notably tempered in some way; how significant they are is likely to be different depending on the viewer. I, for one, think the movie would benefit from being a little less aloof, but I understand why Mendes took that approach, and it pays great dividends in other ways. Whatever you think of Law and Craig, neither of them actually has much screen time, and that efficiency of use is a key reason why I find both their performances quite effective. For similar reasons, I don’t mind the interlude at the farmhouse; it’s a bit awkwardly handled, but it quickly and efficiently fulfills its function in the narrative, and it is in keeping with Mendes’s restrained vision for the movie.

None of these issues, certainly, are serious enough to overshadow the movie’s great strengths—with which they are often closely intertwined. Mendes, as we’ve mentioned, has always been great with actors, and whether those supporting characters work for you or not, Road to Perdition is undoubtedly anchored by some fantastic lead performances. It was marketed as a major departure for Tom Hanks—America’s friendliest, most neighborly movie star plays a cold-blooded hit man! There’s some truth to that, and Hanks is more than capable of pulling off the transformation: with a slightly bulked-up frame lurking under a thick overcoat and fedora, and that subtly intimidating moustache, he looks the part of Irish Mob enforcer Michael Sullivan, and despite the character’s outwardly calm demeanor, his willingness to kill comes as no surprise. And yet, the role isn’t quite as radical as the promotional materials claimed; as Stephen Holden writes, “because Sullivan is played by Mr. Hanks, an actor who invariably exudes conscientiousness and decency, his son’s question [whether his father is “a good man” or “no good at all”] lends the fable a profound moral ambiguity… Acutely aware of his sins, Sullivan is determined that his son, who takes after him temperamentally, not follow in his murderous footsteps.”[ii] The ruthless gangster who’s also a devoted husband and father, striving to shelter his family from the violence of his work life, is a classic figure in cinema, and Hanks turns out to be an ideal actor for such a role. He has the dramatic range to convincingly capture both the character’s hard edges and his tender core, and perhaps because of his broader image as the designated decent guy of Hollywood, his performance illustrates more vividly than most how easily a basically decent person, who might otherwise have led a perfectly moral life, can become a killer if they are rescued from deprivation by a violent community like the mob.

That element of the story also comes across especially powerfully because of the masterful performance on the other side of it: the late, great Paul Newman as mob boss and local patriarch John Rooney. It was something of a swan song for the 77-year-old star: his final role in a movie, at least in the traditional sense. (He would go on to appear a few more times on stage, on television, and as a voice actor before his death in 2008.) It’s a perfect part for him, and the Oscar nomination he received for it was not one of those token nods given to an icon at the end of an illustrious career; Mick LaSalle expressed it well when he wrote that “Newman, who has [apparently] been playing too many crotchety geezers lately, finally gets a role that does justice to his gravity and presence. As Rooney, he’s a picture of healthy old age, straight-backed and clear-eyed, but with the look of someone who has seen horrors. Like virtually everything else in Road to Perdition, not much is on the surface of Newman’s performance. Yet every moment is alive with what’s underneath it—the weight of a misspent life, of guilt, of the certainty of damnation.”[iii] Like Hanks, Newman seamlessly captures both sides of his character: the ruthlessness and resulting capacity to inspire fear, as well as the better angels—devotion to those he loves, guilt for the violence he’s done, and desire to limit it as much as possible—struggling for space in the soul of a deeply conflicted man.

Hanks and Newman are superb on their own terms, and their performances are also crucial to the success of Mendes’s subtly unconventional approach. At first glance, this movie seems like a prime example of what’s often called ‘prestige’ filmmaking, in which major studios (DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox, in this case) attempt to bolster their artistic integrity by bestowing their unmatched financial resources on reputational counterweights to all those frivolous, spectacularly profitable blockbusters—often lavish period pieces that lean into the ‘magic of cinema’ aspect of the medium. Road to Perdition is undoubtedly such a movie, and it bears some of the hallmarks: the star-studded cast, the richly realized Depression-era setting, the mostly classical-Hollywood score by Thomas Newman, and the thematic focus on the emotional complexities of family bonds in the midst of crisis.

Here, that focus rests squarely on fathers and sons, and it’s not limited to the primary, relatively familiar journey of the hardened Sullivan learning to connect with his son, Michael Jr., when the rest of their comfortable existence is violently torn away. The movie explores a triangle of father-son relationships—between Sullivan and Michael, of course, but also between Sullivan and his surrogate father, Rooney, and between Rooney and his biological son, Connor—which feed off each other and collectively serve as the primary driver of the story. Technically, the inciting incident is when Michael, consumed with curiosity about what his father really does for a living, ends up witnessing a murder, leading Connor, who doesn’t trust him to keep the secret, to decide to kill the whole Sullivan family. But Connor’s reckless plan is also motivated by jealously and resentment of the special relationship between Sullivan and Rooney, full of the sort of paternal love and approval that Connor himself craves—and which, going back even further, is the ultimately the reason why Sullivan is involved in the mob in the first place.

The thematic implications of this tangled emotional web, and the story it sets in motion, are interesting and varied, and Road to Perdition does a compelling job of exploring them. As Holden writes, “the movie captures, like no film I’ve seen, the fear-tinged awe with which young boys regard their fathers and the degree to which that awe continues to reverberate into adult life. Viewed through his son’s eyes, Sullivan, whose face is half-shadowed much of the time by the brim of his fedora, is a largely silent deity, the benign but fearsome source of all knowledge and wisdom.” Tyler Hoechlin (in a fine performance for a 14-year-old actor) makes this dynamic clear, but it also persists, in a subtler way, between Sullivan and Rooney, blinding the younger man to the darker sides of their relationship (a definitive highlight of Newman’s performance is the scene in the crypt when he eloquently disabuses Sullivan of his illusions). And it’s certainly the case for Connor, who flails in his efforts to please his father and make a name for himself, and still wilts in the face of the old man’s anger.

And at the same time, we see the same dynamic working in reverse, confirming Rooney’s early pronouncement that “sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.” Sullivan’s determination to keep his children away from his violent world is complicated even before wife and younger son are killed, by the mounting evidence that Michael has inherited some of the harder edges of his personality. Connor, of course, causes all sorts of problems for Rooney, who, in turn, finally meets his maker at the hands of the surrogate son whom he loved more, but who was, at the end of the day, not his own flesh and blood.

Another closely related theme is the effect of violence on these relationships. Is it possible for a father to shield his son from the cost of his own sins—or even, perhaps, achieve some measure of redemption through that effort? How does exposure to violence affect children, and does it inevitably lead them to violence themselves? These are thorny issues, and the movie doesn’t presume to offer definitive answers. On the latter question, we initially get the pessimistic answer in the characters of Sullivan and especially Connor, whose psychosis seems to be, at least in part, an inevitable result of growing up in the mob. But the ending, in which Michael finds himself unable to pull the trigger, offers a more hopeful conclusion that tempers some of the grimness that came before.

That grimness also stems from the air of inevitability that follows these characters for much of the movie. This isn’t so much about the old truism that it’s impossible to walk away from the mob; in fact, Sullivan is effectively offered that chance multiple times, and he refuses. Nor is it about the damage that the mob does to society; as Roger Ebert notes, “the movie shares with The Godfather the useful tactic of keeping the actual victims out of view. There are no civilians here, destroyed by mob activity. All the characters, good and bad, are supplied from within the mob. But there is never the sense that any of these characters will tear loose, think laterally, break the chains of their fate.”[iv] There are twists and revelations here, but for most of the movie, the main source of audience engagement isn’t a burning desire to find out what will happen, or what a character will do. As Rooney points out, Michael was always going to find out what his father did sometime. Once he does, and Connor sees that he has, and Rooney, enraged at his son’s reckless response to that problem, relents and hugs him tightly, the paths of the main characters are more or less set. In the tradition of classical tragedy, the story feels driven not so much by mounting pressure as by the pull of gravity, as that tangled web of relationships and motivations gently but inexorably nudges the characters toward their fates.

And yet, most of us don’t come out of Road to Perdition feeling that we saw a brutally bleak movie, or a boring one. It may not be particularly ground-breaking in a narrative or thematic sense, but great acting nevertheless makes those aspects powerfully felt, and that gives Mendes the space to put a more distinctive stylistic stamp on it than we often see in this sort of prestige filmmaking. To characterize his style, the first word that comes to mind is ‘minimalist,’ but that’s only true in a narrative sense. The movie is based on a graphic novel by Max Alan Collins, but only loosely, as the screenplay by David Self and some uncredited re-writers (probably including Mendes, in some capacity) ended up departing quite a bit from the source material, adding the Maguire character, toning down the carnage and the brutality of the protagonist—as great an actor as he is, Hanks can’t convincingly play a character known as ‘The Angel of Death’—and distilling the narrative down to its fundamental elements.[v] As a result, the story unfolds at a stately pace, but with great efficiency, and most of the dialogue remaining after all those cuts is concise and expressive, allowing the actors to convey great deal not only through words, but through the other tools of their trade.

A better way to put it is that Road to Perdition is narratively minimalist, but sensorily lavish. It’s simply a lovely movie to experience, in both a visual and auditory sense, and this is the other major reason it’s so engaging. The sound design is understated but highly effective; all gun-related sounds, from shots firing to the slides and clicks of other functions, ring out in harsh contrast to the otherwise subdued soundscape, representing the jarring incursion of violence into everyone’s outwardly respectable lives. And Mendes has a cool habit of subtly jacking up tension at key moments by slowly increasing the volume of a single sound within the scene: music in the other room at a brothel, the whir of a stock market ticker tape during a standoff, or waves breaking outside as Michael tries to pull the trigger on Maguire.

But first and foremost, we’re talking about the visuals here, because they are remarkable. As it was for Newman, Road to Perdition turned out to be a swan song for the legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who died in 2003, less than a year after the movie came out.[vi] Taking inspiration from the paintings of Edward Hopper, Hall does exquisite things with light, shadow and darkness, crafting a vision of the early-30s Chicago area that’s too gorgeously stylized to be called realistic, yet somehow never completely abandons realism. It would be futile to try to unpack the gorgeous images that result (where would you even begin?), but suffice it to say that I never get tired of looking at them; I think Holden put it best, writing that Hall and Mendes “have created a truly majestic visual tone poem, one that…inspires a continuing and deeply satisfying awareness of the best movies as monumental ‘picture shows.’” Even the thrill of so-called ‘action,’ of which there is a decent amount (this is a gangster movie, after all, in which many people get shot), is mostly conveyed not through stunts, but through visual flourishes that are conspicuous without being overly indulgent. When Michael witnesses the shootout, we see it all from his vantage point, under a door; when Rooney’s men are gunned down, we see the muzzle flash in darkness, then a slow tracking shot, drifting from man to man as they fall; when Sullivan finally gets his revenge on Connor, we see the dead man only in the mirror on a door swinging shut.

This is what I meant earlier, about the 20th century and the enduring appeal of Road to Perdition. There are many reasons for the lasting popularity of gangster movies, but Mendes, Hall and the rest understood that especially in recent years, a large (and underappreciated) part of the genre’s appeal is simply aesthetic. So they chose to lean in to that element of the story, an effort that involved not only Hall, but also production designer Dennis Gassner, art director Richard L. Johnson, costume designer Albert Wolsky, and the countless artists and technicians working under them. They did a magnificent job, and the result is a movie that, even back in the carefree year of 2002, when they didn’t even have to worry too much about climate change (I mean, they did, but the world wasn’t literally on fire yet), indulges the nostalgia for the 20th century that we can’t help but feel, even though we know better. Of course we know that clothes in the 30s were pretty uncomfortable, but people sure did look good in them. Of course vehicles back then didn’t work nearly as well as they do today, but god damn, those cars are cool. Of course these cities and towns were pits of despair at that time, but man, those images sure are stunning.

We don’t really wish we were back in that world. But especially amid the madness of 2021, it’s lovely to spend a couple hours there.

© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] Very awesome. The rest of the movie, not so much.





[vi] Newman and Hall had collaborated before, with impressive results: Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Captain Phillips (2013)

Screen shot 2019-04-02 at 4.29.01 PM

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.  

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© 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.