More Than “Okay”: Bookending CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

2 February 2014

Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips (2013) captures the true story of a container ship’s hijacking off the coast of Africa and the subsequent rescue of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), the ship’s captain taken hostage by the pirates when their hijacking goes amiss.  While the film quickly builds tension and maintains high-stakes anxiety through its entire, action-packed duration, this film is bookended with two emotional sequences, one that sets the stage for action, and the other that brings the intense action to rest.  Moreover, the bookended scene are well-linked with the first foreshadowing the resolution and the film’s resolution purposefully evoking memories of the opening, adding even more emotion to the already moving, powerful finale.  That said, while most of the film is edge-of-you-seat thrilling, Captain Phillips’s action can easily overshadow its opening and closing sequences, and those deserve equal consideration, particularly for the way both sequences handle dialogue and word choice.

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The first word spoken in Captain Phillips is “okay,” said by Andrea Phillips (Catherine Keener) as she dashes out of the Phillips’ home in Underhill, Vermont, headed from the minivan in the driveway.  (Evident from her clothing, Andrea works in the medical field because she is dressed in scrubs, a costuming detail which, retrospectively, links this opening with the film’s final scene.) Inside the minivan awaits her husband, Captain Richard Phillips, packed and ready for the airport where he will travel to Africa and transport cargo.  Evident from the camera’s close-up on Andrea’s hands, as they nervously tap her legs in the passenger seat, the couple’s drive to the airport is full of unease.  However, it is not only body language that signals this unease; language plays a vital role in communicating tension.  Andrea mentions that it gets harder every time her husband goes on one of these trips, but their conversation dances around the unease, never directly addressing the source of the couple’s mutual agitation and apprehension, just strongly hinting at it.

Andrea tries bringing up her anxiety indirectly, saying, “I know this is what we do; this is our life.  But, it just seems like the world is moving so fast.  Right now, it just seems like things are changing so much.”  Andrea is being vague; what is it they do, and what things are changing?  But, before she has time to narrow in on what she is trying to express, Richard jumps in and redirects the talk, mentioning their teenage children, specifically how much harder it will be for their children to succeed in a more demanding, faster-paced world than the one Richard and Andrea grew up in.  Evident from these opening minutes, language is being manipulated in Captain Phillips.  Characters are intentionally speaking ambiguously and also purposefully being evasive with words.

As Richard banters on, having hijacked this conversation (a bad pun), the shots Greengrass uses in this opening sequence gain significance.  The camera has yet to capture a direct close-up on Richard or Andrea.  Even in this confined minivan, the director cuts between a backseat view of Richard and Andrea, reflected shots through the visor’s mirror of Richard, and exterior shots of the golden minivan traveling on the highway.  These shots are significant because their indirectness aligns with the indirectness of the couple’s conversation.  Richard evades discussing the cause of the apparent tension the same way the camera evades capturing a direct shot of either of these characters.

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As they exit the highway, Andrea asks, “But it’s going to be okay, right?”  Richard replies with “Oh yeah, it’s going to be okay,” reassuring his wife.  Although the placement of her question in Richard’s bantering makes it seem as though she is asking this question about their children’s future, it feels as though Andrea’s question is not about her children at all; it seems Andrea’s nervousness prompted this question about her husband’s trip, the pressing topic on her mind.  Richard’s reply seems to account for this, offering her as vague of an answer as the question she posed, allowing her to read into it what she needs.

This indirect conversation and the vagueness of language in this opening is a strength of Captain Phillips.  The truth is Richard is headed into a pirate infested sea, and he and Andrea both know that.  There is no way to know if danger waits, and so it is impossible not to worry; yet, what is there to talk about?  Traveling through this region to deliver cargo is Richard’s job.  There would be no reason to discuss the dangers now, en route to the airport, and it certainly would not make it easy for Richard to leave his wife if she were expressing, directly, all her fear about his trip.  Thus, keeping the banter surface and indirect helps communicate how emotional this moment actually is for this couple; their circumstance is, in fact, so uneasy that they cannot discuss it or make much eye contact.  Even the audience cannot look right at these characters in the opening, thanks to the cinematic technique used.

Instead of being direct, the couple exchanges several “okays” during this conversation, a very vague use of language, and a wise move on behalf of the screenwriter.  The word is a catch-all; it can mean almost anything.  Yet, the word’s impulsive overuse, in life and in this opening sequence, also suggests the word has no meaning at all.  It is a mindless word.  Often, “okay” is the go-to phrase when people do not know what else say, or wish not to elaborate.  From that perspective, and continuing to look at this opening as indirect in language and cinematic technique, “okay” is another diversion or distraction from the palpable emotion and rising tension.

Throughout the film, “okay” remains a commonly used term, an excellent filler for the language barrier between the characters and, again, the impulsive, reactionary word during intensely tense moments when emotion is too high to be communicated through language.  And, in the film’s resolution, the other bookend, “okay” completely floods the film’s diegetic sound, intentionally reminiscent of the opening sequence.

Captain Phillips trailer launch - video

While in medical quarters for his injuries, the foreman and Richard exchange several “okays”; nearly everything exchanged verbally between the two is an “okay,” from, “Are you okay?” to “I’m okay,” “It’s okay,” and “You’re going to be okay,” and each of these phrases is repeated again and again.   Immediately, the “okays” evoke the opening sequence.  Not only is this the only other woman Richard has spoken to since Andrea in the opening sequence (and both women are in medical garb), but their recursive use of the word “okay” parallels both sequences.  Again, “okay” is a vague word and used in this final scene to unconsciously yet intentionally not get too direct.  Having just survived a tremendous trauma, “okay” is a safe word (just as it was a safe word when Richard knowingly departed for Africa and, likely, into danger).

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This simple well-aligned bookending encapsulates a strong action film with considerable emotional value.  The vague use of language in both the opening and resolution not only conveys tension’s rise and tension’s fall in Captain Phillips, but it also suggests that the emotion of this film is so powerful that is cannot be captured with language; the indirect, vague “okays”—which is both the first and last word used in the film—do not, and cannot, communicate what is really being felt; turns out ineffective, meaningless language is actually very effective in signaling meaning to audiences.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 02/02/2014.

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