David Vs. Goliath

 

 

From 35 years’ distance, Francis Ford Coppola’s whopper at his 1979 Cannes press conference— “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam”—isn’t just risible but quietly astounding. It bespeaks an entire film gestalt that must be near extinct in today’s audiovisual ecology, teeming as it is with viral videos of self-immolating protestors and Tahrir Square crackdowns, not to mention two more recent, hi-res wars. The most compelling helicopter attack scene isn’t to be found in Zero Dark Thirty, but in 38 minutes of black-and- white video shot from the gunsight of an Apache over Baghdad and then WikiLeaked in 2010. Now that film really is Iraq—joking and misdirection on the radio-chatter audio, unarmed civilians vaporized on screen—but no one was looking for a credit on that production.

The savvier verité directors look to global events in other regions to make meaningful hyperrealist drama. And last year two divergent talents, Paul Greengrass and Tobias Lindholm, converged on exactly the same point: a modern Huis Clos on open water.

Some time before Greengrass re-created the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama with Captain Phillips, Dogme alum Lindholm made the more austere and elegant A Hijacking, based on the cases of two Danish cargo ships hijacked in 2007 and 2008. A modestly budgeted indie, A Hijacking intercuts the ordeal of the crew and owners of the Danish MV Rozen after it’s seized by pirates attempting to extract a ransom from their company’s razor-sharp CEO. As co-screenwriter, Lindholm had developed the gut-wrenching stories of Submarino and The Hunt with director Thomas Vinterberg, whose 1998 The Celebration enacted Dogme 95’s principles more thoroughly than any affiliated work, and hit harder than most films of the decade. Here, shooting fast with a $2 million budget, Lindholm achieves an emotional impact comparable to the one Greengrass delivers with exponentially greater resources.

Dogme’s austerity and pacing depict the psychological battle between shipping magnate Peter Ludvigsen (Soren Malling) and the unknowable criminals who are leveraging his crew’s lives half a world away. At the same time, he follows the travails of the ship’s soulful cook (Pilou Asbaek), who languishes with his fellow crew members, sealed in a room belowdecks, and whose command of English wins him a role in negotiations that involves having a pistol held to his head.

Honoring at least the first of Dogme’s chastity vows, A Hijacking was shot on location: in the boardroom where one of the actual negotiations took place and in the Indian Ocean, on one of the vessels that had been hijacked. Lindholm also filmed Ludvigsen’s negotiation scenes with the pirate’s translator Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) using actual long-distance calls between Denmark and Somalia. The time- and budget-imposed ellipses in the action often bring us closer to the human terror. Instead of a heart-pounding pirate-boarding scene, Lindholm gives us a sotto voce message passed from an exec to a CEO whose face turns ashen, his body language becoming tighter and more deliberate, as he takes in the knowledge that a distant horror has already seized someone’s friends or loved ones, whom he can only join in media res and from a great distance. Lindholm’s documentary eye creates a more intimate connection to the characters’ inner lives and makes what little they show us truly count: a twitch in the stony countenance of Malling’s ramrod CEO as his confidence begins to crumble; the subequatorial light catching the hostages’ ragged expressions through the porthole of the ad hoc brig where the crew are held; Asbaek’s bearded, saucer-eyed face going from bottled-up rage to pleading terror to a broken abstracted gaze at the absurd brutality that ends this winner-less game.

Lindholm’s pyrotechnics are internal and compressed, his precise tempo and sound motifs becoming a garrote: the echo and delay of a long-distance line carrying Ludvigsen’s counteroffer to Omar, then the breathless pause as his figure is relayed to the guy with the gun. The coldhearted negotiation skills Ludvigsen are established in an early scene slowly erode over days spent in an airless conference-room-turned-crisis-center,as the human currency in this exchange settles heavily on his soul.

 

Several times in Captain Phillips, the eponymous protagonist hears his Somali handler, Muse, affect a laidback American bonhomie: “Don’t worry,” he drawls from some Margaritaville of the mind. “Ev’ry’ting gon’ be fine.” It’s a line Muse’s cold eyes and unreadable smile don’t exactly sell the first time he says it, and it doesn’t get more convincing with repeition. While A Hijacking moves at a Scandinavian pace to depict its weeks-long hostage ordeal, the Maersk Alabama hijacking lasted a mere five days and unfolded like a Hollywood screenplay: a first-act standoff then invasion; a second-act game of cat and mouse belowdecks; a desperate third-act move that builds to a climax made for fans of Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden.

 

Greengrass brings a military-scale budget to bear on this crackling yarn, not to mention a Hollywood A-lister, Tom Hanks, whose attachment to this verité thriller made me wince when I learned of it. Bloody Sunday and United 93 developed a signature doc-style realism with mobile, handheld coverage, ultra-specific dialogue and attention to detail, and casts of average-looking unknowns. Their mundane reality would have dissolved the moment someone like Brad Pitt or Morgan Freeman walked into a scene.

Nonetheless, Hanks’ Rich Phillips sallies forth with a drive to the airport to begin his fateful trip, chatting with his wife (Catherine Keener) in the front seat. Like a child in the backseat, the camera observes them from behind, fast-panning from mom to dad as they speak dialogue seemingly scripted for a Merrill Lynch commercial: “The world is changing so fast today.” “What will our kids’ world be like?” It’s an incongruously bad lift-off. In United 93, actors speaking transcripts of radio and cell-phone conversations seemed more like actual air traffic controllers in an unimaginable crisis than Hanks and Keener do a middle-aged couple driving down a turnpike.

And yet, with a straight cut to Eyl, Somalia, we’re on firmer ground. The beachside hills shake with the booming sound systems of Mitsubishi SUVs mounted with machine guns that bear the local reps of the region’s hijacking cartel. Like the clamoring dockside stevedores at the start of On the Waterfront, scores of skinny young men jump to answer the crew chiefs’ calls urging them to “Get to work! Make some money!” All the while, their potential employers hold them at gunpoint, terror clearly a top-down part of their larger enterprise, in which the ship’s crew are conscripts on the lowest level of the criminal command structure. When Greengrass’s restless camera locates the skeletal, resourceful Muse (played by riveting novice Barkhad Abdi), this frailest-looking of the pirate hopefuls casts a heavy-lidded, appraising gaze at his rivals. Then a quick cut to Phillips’s arrival at Salah Port in captain’s whites makes clear which twain will be meeting.

Greengrass uses his immense resources poetically in these early scenes. His wide shot of a container yard in the Port of Salah is a breathtaking array of multicolored rectangles, a Mondrian canvas of globalization whose scale is hard to fully assimilate. Soon after, a helicopter shot follows Phillips’s tiny figure walking down the massive Maersk Alabama deck, underlining the enormous responsibility he bears. With the seizure of the ship, Phillips’s crafty countermeasures, and the military’s first moves onto the chessboard, we’re in familiar waters: Black Hawk Down, Battle for Haditha, and other action-films-as-long- form-pseudojournalism-pieces have prepped us for the square-jawed Navy negotiator, the arriving SEALs, the tactical jargon, and even the ratcheting tension inside the Maersk Alabama lifeboat in which the pirates hold Phillips as they scramble for a Hail Mary gambit. When the film does drop its bomb, it’s unconventionally late in the story—and Hanks is the one who drops it.

 

Along with delivering all the nauseating terror I expected, United 93 moved me in a way I wasn’t prepared for. While the highly attenuated experience of those passengers is often nearly unbearable, the later scenes take on what might almost be called a spiritual dimension, one quite foreign to the action-thriller genre. Close to its horrifying end, there’s an eerie, swooning sense of calm, as if everyone from flight attendant to terrorist is performing their assigned role perfectly. To discern a transcendent peace in moments of mortal terror that were actually experienced by real people feels a bit like joining the Holocaust denial movement, or claiming that freedom of religion must honor a jihadi’s right to mass murder. Yet even General Spielberg glimpses this same God’s-eye view of polarizing violence in an early shot in Saving Private Ryan: as Hanks leads his men into the hail of mortar fire and bullets, he cuts away to a setup behind a German machine-gunner facing a stupendous invading force he hasn’t a prayer of holding off.

More or less the same sight greets Muse and his collaborators on the final night of the kidnapping drama. The reality that Lindholm created for A Hijacking wouldn’t sustain the kind of editorializing dialogue heard inside the Alabama lifeboat. (“I know how to handle America,” says Muse. “Just give me the gun.”) But one sea-level shot of the warship looming off the lifeboat’s stern says more than enough: like the hijackers in United 93, the pirates in A Hijacking, and even the Army helicopter gunner in the WikiLeaks clip, Muse and his comrades are luckless foot soldiers serving distant corporate interests. While Lindholm’s story trails off to a denouement illustrating this racket’s dismally low returns, Greengrass’s climaxes with the hero’s rescue thanks to the technology and can-do expertise of America’s military elite. But it’s only after the action-film climax is over and done that Captain Phillips earns its place among Greengrass’s finest work.

On the USS Bainbridge deck, snipers coolly call their marks and chart the position of “the package,” before heeding the last command: “Execute.” Greengrass cuts to the interior of the lifeboat as it becomes a slasher film. Blindfolded and hanging by bound wrists, Hanks is sprayed with fresh blood and stunned by the sudden silence. The soundtrack drops out as his screams fill the tiny metal space. On board the Bainbridge, the wheels of justice and the use of force engage on different levels of the ship. Belowdecks the tiny Muse sits in rags surrounded by giant American soldiers; higher up “the package” is escorted staggering into a sickbay for an improvised scene Greengrass and Hanks added as an afterthought, and that out-Dogmes Dogme in execution and impact. Hanks sits on the examination table as a female Navy corpsman (played by an actual Navy corpsman) checks his vitals, records his injuries—“a four-centimeter laceration to the upper right eyebrow”—asks him simple questions, and runs through a standard intake procedure.

In a Q&A at the New York Film Festival, Hanks described this moment in terms of procedure and behavior. “There is a procedure, you can be very confident about that. And then there is behavior that, if you’re lucky, you can re-create.” As Phillips mumbles some fractured answers, the medic says, “You’re OK, you’re safe,” and Captain Phillips shows us something new. “Acting is truth-telling,” Greengrass said at Lincoln Center. “And that’s what’s in that scene. This shocking sense of humanity.” It’s a humanity we’ve not seen in such a raw form in 40-odd Hanks performances: a trembling, tearful, fifty-something baby struggling to reconstitute into a man. It’s a hijacking’s best-case outcome—and something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.