Captain Phillips is a Case of Greengrass Déjà Vu

Going to see the new movie Captain Phillips was a case of massive film déjà vu.  No, this is not because I was recently on a boat that was taken over by Somali pirates, or because I was once trapped on a lifeboat for several days.  Fortunately, there was nothing from my own life that bore a striking similarity to the events on screen.  Rather, it was a case in which one film reminded me of another film, and the similarities were no coincidence.

Captain Phillips, the new film starring Tom Hanks which tells the (mostly?) true story of a Somali pirate attack on the U.S. merchant ship Maersk Alabama in 2009, was directed by Paul Greengrass, the man behind both The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, as well as less massive hits Bloody Sunday and Green Zone.  However, the Greengrass film that is being naturally compared to Captain Phillips by both myself and others is United 93, for which the director received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director back in 2007.

The obvious connection between these two films is that both involve a transportation vessel being taken over by four men of Arab and/or African descent.  As both movies are based on real events, those who pay attention to the news will know ahead of time how the story will end in each case: one will be happy and one will be sad.  The events between the initial hostage taking and the inevitable outcome must be portrayed in a way that will engage the viewer’s emotions while also challenging popular assumptions.

Columbia Pictures

Copyright Columbia Pictures. Used for commentary purposes only.

There are a few characteristics that mark every Greengrass film, at least those made in recent years.  The first is what is sometimes referred to as “shaky cam”, a look achieved using handheld cameras that freely jerk and zoom to highlight an actor’s movements and provide a documentary-like feel.  Quick edits are used to enhance this effect.  While some filmgoers conclude that this heightens the sense of action, others complain that it gives them motion sickness. (It is worth noting that in this case, “seasickness” could simply be a way of making the maritime film seem even more realistic.)

Both Captain Phillips and United 93 spend an awful lot of time cramped inside a small space: either an airplane cabin or a ship interior.  This creates a significant challenge for the director, who must find a way to keep the audience engaged despite the fact that they already know approximately how events will unfold.

In United 93, the claustrophobia is broken up with numerous cuts to air traffic control centers around the country as they struggle to come to grips with the terrorist attacks in real time.  Only in the final act does the drama shift exclusively to the fourth hijacked plane.  In Captain Phillips, Greengrass makes use of numerous sweeping aerial shots of the different vessels, all of which look stunning on the big screen and help to provide context for the viewer.  However, even this tactic was not enough to keep me from wishing that the part of the movie spent inside the lifeboat vessel had been shortened by about ten minutes.

There are other ways in which the two films are alike.  In both cases, there is a heaping helping of “dramatic irony”, which the ever trusty defines as “irony that is inherent in speeches or a situation of a drama and is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play” (or, in this case, the movie).

I felt a sense of foreboding in United 93 as the highly flammable fuel was pumped into the plane, the cabin door was locked shut after the final passenger boarded, and the pilots pushed forward the lever during takeoff.  I was frustrated as both the air traffic controllers and even the pilots onboard the plane did not take immediate, decisive action in response to warnings they received.

Universal Pictures

Copyright Universal Pictures. Used for commentary purposes only.

More of these moments are provided in Captain Phillips.  The titular character receives multiple warnings that pirates pose a threat near the Somali coast.  He is even told to take the ship further out to sea at one point, but declines to do so, believing the threat of piracy is equally bad at either distance. (Apparently, some of the Maersk Alabama crew members were none too happy about this decision.) As in United 93, the hijackers are able to get by the minimal security measures, and it is only the quick thinking and bravery of the hostages themselves that prevents an even greater disaster from happening.

Ironically, the real people portrayed in both films happen to be going through a regular security drill when they are first informed of that there is an attack underway.  Thus, the NORAD personnel in United 93 and crew members in Captain Phillips both have to be assured that reports of an attack are “not a drill”.  “This is real world,” Captain Phillips tells his crew, using the same terminology employed in the other film.

In addition, the hijackers in both cases start out by assuring their victims that they mean no harm, as in the character Ziad Jarrah’s demand to a flight attendant in United 93: “Open the door!  Open the door and no one will get hurt!”  The Somali pirates promise Phillips the same thing as long as they get their millions.

Greengrass wanted both of these films to feel intensely realistic, and that affected the way he selected and prepared the actors.  While Captain Phillips does have Tom Hanks in the lead role, none of the other cast members in either film are well known.  Somali-American Barkhad Abdi, who plays the main pirate in that film, was making his acting debut (and an impressive debut at that).

Greengrass does like to use the same actors in more than one of his movies, so I did recognize Corey Johnson (The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy) as a crew member who gets a gun pointed at his head early on, and Omar Berdouni (United 93 and Green Zone) as an Arabic-speaking interpreter working for the U.S. Navy.  Michael Chernus, who plays Captain Phillips’ number two man on board, also appeared in The Bourne Legacy.


The only decent free use photo of Paul Greengrass available is this one by Wikipedia user PS2pcGAMER.

In both films, Greengrass kept the actors playing the hijackers/pirates separate from the rest of the cast before shooting in order to increase the foreignness of the two groups to one another.  He also refrains from using heavily scripted movements or even set-in-stone lines, allowing the actors to ad lib and move around in a way that feels natural.  This allowed Abdi to ad lib a line that has since shown up in advertising for Captain Phillips: “I’m the captain now.”

Efforts are also made in the two films to humanize the perpetrators.  Muse, the Somali pirate leader, spouts off about “bosses” who force him into acts of cruelty, the lack of job opportunities for Somalis in their war-ravaged country, and Western imperialists who do little to help his people.  We also see him get picked on mercilessly by a few of his fellow pirates.

In United 93, hijacker Ziad Jarrah is shown calling someone before getting on board and simply saying, “I love you.” (That phone call did take place in real life and was not the filmmaker’s invention.) His caution and indecision throughout the film lead us to feel that he too may be a victim of his circumstances who is capable of love.  Even so, the villains are still undeniably villainous, willing to use whatever means will get them to their desired end.

All of these similarities would have been enough for me to declare a sense of déjà vu without anything else added.  However, I have not yet mentioned the one thing that seems to bridge the two films more than anything else: the musical score.  There were actually two different composers for the two movies, with John Powell writing the score for United 93 and Henry Jackson crafting the music for Captain Phillips.  Still, that did not prevent the films from sounding strikingly similar.  At several points in the latter film, I could sense one of the United 93 themes struggling to break out.

What really surprised me is that in the climactic scene of Captain Phillips, as the Navy SEALS wait for the order to shoot and the remaining pirates come ever so close to killing their hostage, the music is not just similar to what was used in the final scene of United 93: it is exactly the same music.

john powell, wiki Karenreginato

“United 93” score composer John Powell. Photo by Wikipedia user Karenreginato.

The track is titled “The End” and was composed by John Powell rather than Henry Jackson.  I am not sure whether Greengrass always wanted to reuse the track for Captain Phillips, or if it was a last minute addition due to some perceived flaw in Jackson’s score. (Some Google sleuth work has not yielded anything yet.) Either way, the use of the same music had an interesting effect on me. I knew ahead of time exactly when the SEALS would shoot: the same moment that the screen went black at the end of United 93.

In a way, the reuse of the track seemed to sum up for me the difference between the two films.  In one, the end will be death, while in the other, the end will be life.  While the use of “The End” in United 93 marked the final moments of all of the passengers’ lives, its use in Captain Phillips counted down the final seconds until the main character’s freedom.  Everyone on the Maersk Alabama survived, while everyone on United 93 perished.

I am not sure whether or not I should be filled with hope in light of these similar but ultimately divergent tales.  On the one hand, I know that both airline and maritime security have been beefed up as a result of what happened.  On the other, I know that human nature has not changed one bit.

There will always be those who are willing to sacrifice everything in defense of what they believe, and there will always be those who would stoop to any level in order to achieve their ends.  The question, I suppose, is how different those two groups of people really are, or even which group is which.  One thing I know for sure: if I ever get stuck in a hijacking situation, I can take solace in the knowledge that I will soon be  featured in a Paul Greengrass movie.

All word definitions are from Unabridged, which is based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2013.