In the space of a couple of weeks, cinemas will play host to two films of a very similar nature: A Hijacking and Captain Phillips. Both films concern the, well, hijacking of a freighter by Somali pirates. But this synopsis is where the sameness ends. Both succeed for different reasons and both endings will leave you jaw agape, writhing on the floor in shock.
Hell, there’s something to be said about a film that can inspire fear, dread and horror with a mere title card. As recently used in the documentary Some Kind of Monster to display the extreme length of time the band was taking to record 75 minutes of music (almost a year!), here it is shown to illustrate how long negotiations have taken for the CEO to negotiate with the pirates on board the MV Rozen in A Hijacking. The final card that notes the extravagant length of time is cause for celebration but the notes following it make you wonder if it was all worth the while.
Director Tobias Lindholm’s latest tells the story of seven men aboard a Danish freighter in the Indian Ocean. Their days are spent in a casual manner: how many sugars in their coffee is their biggest stress. Back in Denmark, the CEO of the company that owns the ship is walking in and out of meetings all day, furthering his wealth and that of the company’s. The moment the ship is stormed by pirates is incredibly jarring, and a spectacular cut—a Somali bearing an automatic pistol is suddenly on board, frowning heavily.
If there’s a fault within A Hijacking, and this could be a moot point, it’s that the Somalis are muted—their conversations are sans subtitles and any communication is exchanged via the translator Omar. Lindholm has said this was a deliberate choice as he could only confidently make a film about the Danish crew and CEO, that to give the Somalis speech is incongruous with his vision. It is certainly a respectable choice from a human rights standpoint but does limit the film, if only a tiny bit.
Then again, A Hijacking may not necessarily require their voice. The film at a bare bones level is about negotiation, whether in the boardroom or aboard a freighter in the middle of the ocean. Omar is their single negotiator. He has more of a voice than the Danish men on board who are reduced to a single cry via Mikkel, the cook, who plays the submissive victim. The Danes are without strength or power—the simple act of going outside and seeing the ocean becomes a reward, gifted after many days have passed. Until then, they are forced to sleep and breathe in the same room they piss and shit in.
How the negotiations play out is unique. There’s no Government interference, nor any manner of outside influence (except the jovial British counsellor Connor, played by Gary Porter). CEO Peter Ludvigsen (a fantastic Søren Malling) insists on keeping it in house and under his personal direction despite Connor’s warnings, perhaps out of arrogance. Ludvigsen becomes the Captain of the ship (the actual Captain is ill) thousands of miles away and things quickly go awry.
Tom Hanks, the ultimate everyman, plays a nautical captain in Paul Greengrass’ latest. (The two films share a similar storyline--there’s again a ship being hijacked, for starters.) The rubbish-titled Captain Phillips works like a big budget vision of Lindholm’s film and Phillips is the man that again tries to save the day, with minimal success.
We don’t know much about Richard ‘Rich’ Phillips and what we do know isn’t very interesting. He’s nicknamed Cap by his crewmates, for obvious reasons; he spends trips to the airport bemoaning the state of the world to what can only be a long-suffering wife, played by an almost invisible Catherine Keener for five minutes; he wears thick cotton vests that you suddenly inherit once you hit fifty years of age; and his crew think he’s too anal about, well, everything. What we are made privy to however is the choices he makes as the hijacking plays out: this isn’t a man you don’t want to fight; this is merely a family man trying to do his best.
The Somali pirates are again the bad guys but here Greengrass gives them a voice. We see them organising the attack—random men are selected on the basis they are strong and can steer a boat—and when on board their experience at hijacking shows: they manoeuvre themselves around the ship with confidence and aren’t easily manipulated by Phillip’s desperate distractions.
Where A Hijacking played out for days upon weeks upon months, Captain Phillips is resolved within a couple of weeks. The Somalis are delighted to learn the boat is under American ownership—this is the big bucks, boys!—and it is their arrogance, not the crews, that ultimately gets them into trouble.
Greengrass isn’t so much interested in how this negotiation is resolved. Phillips knows it all and even walks the pirates through how it will all play out once help arrives. What’s at stake here is the choices people make that direct their lives in an ever-changing world. Phillips muses about this on his way to the airport with his wife, a conversation any person over forty will have had at some point in their life. Here the pirates and the American crew are the same. Both parties have workplace interests and in the words of Phillips, “We all have bosses.” The pirates are serving the powers-that-be; however, a bad day at work for them could result in serious injury or death, not merely a union investigation.
The final scene is one of Tom Hanks’ finest moments. Like the ending to The Grey, it is an ode to a lonely world and questions just how much a human life is worth. In this, Lindholm and Greengrass are on the same tearful page.
A Hijacking – [rating=4]
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Captain Phillips – [rating=4]
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire