I recently posed about Rush, which has a director I like and a genre I don’t, which was a delight, and Prisoners, which belongs to a genre I like, has a director I’d never heard of, and was disappointing. In the case of Captain Phillips, I love the genre as, like Prisoners, it is a thriller, and Paul Greengrass is one of my top ten directors. Captain Phillips exceeded my expectations and is one of my top films of 2013, as it is an incredibly gripping, highly intelligent, well balanced and merciless thriller.
Captain Phillips works because all its components support each other perfectly. Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain and Barkhad Abdi as his antagonist Abduwali Muse, leader of the Somali hijackers of the Maersk Alabama, deliver powerhouse performances that I hope will be remembered come awards season. Billy Ray’s script combines compelling personal drama with wider themes of globalisation and the poverty gap, while Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is tight and intimate to the point of claustrophobia. Greengrass orchestrates these myriad elements into a visceral and enthralling experience, drawing the viewer into the action and allowing us to feel the resolve and hunger of the pirates as well as the desperate fear of the Alabama crew. My hands gripped the arms of my seats all the way through and, while I did not feel queasy, I can understand that some might as the sense of being aboard ship was palatable. One critic said that after seeing the film he wanted a stiff drink – I wanted to lie down.
Strong reactions to films are something I like very much, especially uncomfortable reactions. A major reason we go to the cinema is to have safe thrills – while the sense of danger and exhilaration can be created by the right cinematic experience, we are very seldom in actual danger (accounts of heart attacks and vomiting at The Exorcist, Jaws and Alien notwithstanding). The main reason Prisoners disappointed me was that it did not leave me devastated, while Rush was thoroughly exhilarating. Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity are two films that have left me shaken and stirred this year, and Captain Phillips did the same. But what made Captain Phillips unique, not just for this year but in my entire cinema-going experience (which is extensive), is that I cried. No film had ever before prompted me to shed tears, and this got me thinking about what gets our tear ducts working.
Lists of tear-jerkers tend to include Casablanca, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Bambi, Dumbo, Old Yeller and It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic did bring me very close to tears when I finally saw it (at Christmas, obviously), and there are others that cause me to well up such as The Lion King, Twelve Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby and, despite repeat viewings, Titanic (mock me all you want, I don’t care). All of these made me well up, so I could feel the tears in my eyes, but they would not flow, would not burst out of my eyes and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. In fairness, I hardly ever cry anyway, not because I’m a super tough macho man (though I am, please don’t hurt me!), but for some unknown reason, tears very rarely flow from me. I often wish they would, but when I feel tears in my eyes, I start willing them to flow, which takes me out of the tear-inducing situation and the damn things dry up.
The way my reaction works highlights the mechanics of tear-jerking cinema. Most reactions to cinema are a result of manipulation, because that is what film does. Anyone who does not like to be manipulated should avoid film, because film manipulates all the time, sometimes in such a way as to make you cry – recently I saw tears at Saving Mr Banks. Steven Spielberg’s films are frequent tear-jerkers, including E.T., Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and Spielberg has openly admitted that his films are manipulative. Schindler’s List, War Horse and, perhaps less obviously, Munich all caused me to well up, because they poured on the agony. Watching a man break under the emotion of what he has failed to do, a horse lie down and die, or a man who has committed terrible acts listen to the innocence embodied in his baby – these are scenes that Spielberg, with help from John Williams, draws out to inflict maximum anguish on the viewer. But once I feel effect of the manipulation, I try to encourage it, which takes me out of the moment and I don’t cry.
This was not the case with Captain Phillips, crucially because the tears I shed were not solely out of anguish, as most weepy scenes are, but also sheer exhaustion. From the point where the hijackers take over the Alabama, there is no let up as they scour the ship, the crew fight back, Phillips is taken hostage, the US navy enters negotiations and eventually stages a rescue. Prior to the rescue, Phillips is brought to the limits of human endurance as the hijackers tie him up and blindfold him, all the while yelling at him and each other. The cacophony, the intensity and the empathy I felt for Phillips were what caused the tears to flow, and they continued in the aftermath when Phillips was brought aboard the USS Bainbridge and treated for shock – I cried out of relief and exhaustion as much as anything else. I have often considered Tom Hanks a rather bland actor, but no longer, as the anguish, rage, frustration, fear and desperation that he displayed in the film’s final act took me into Phillips’ dire position. When he was being treated for shock after being rescued, repeatedly thanking the naval officers, the sense of relief was palatable and deeply moving. I’m not always one to engage with characters, but on this occasion I felt very engaged indeed, possibly needed treatment for shock myself. Like Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity, Captain Phillips left me shaken and stirred, and also moved. I would not have expected a Paul Greengrass film to make me cry, so it was a very rewarding cinema experience. I tend to credit directors for making a film work, and Greengrass is great for delivering visceral, intense work, but hats off to all involved, especially Hanks for performing the most heartbreaking anguish I have seen in a long time.