Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips

Shelley Farmer is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy. She examines two Official Selection films, Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips and Hany Abu-Assad's Omar, that find personal focus amid a political story and argues that both owe a debt to genre filmmaking.

This year’s New York Film Festival has featured no shortage of politically engaged films: both fiction and documentary, historical and strikingly up-to-date, from established filmmakers and relative newcomers alike. Two films whose subject matter is most relevant to our current historical moment are Paul Greengrass’ festival-opener Captain Phillips and Omar, the most recent work by Paradise Now director Hany Abu-Assad. Captain Phillips stars Tom Hanks as the real-life title character, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates during the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. Omar, meanwhile, is a work of fiction that tells the story of a young Palestinian man who is arrested after his friend shoots an Israeli officer, and forced into a conflict of divided loyalties.

Captain Phillips would seem to present the ideal opportunity to examine violence within the context of gross global inequality. Even the most basic iconography of the story—the enormous American ship juxtaposed with the pirates’ dingy motor boats—inevitably recalls this wealth and power disparity. However, the film’s political engagement is minimal. Rather than constructing a piece that explores the larger political forces that led to the hijacking, Greengrass instead focuses on the personal experiences of the individuals involved. While there are moments when the script acknowledges the larger political environment in which the story exists (such as Phillip’s tin-eared insistence that the pirates’ captain could make money another way, to which he responds, “Maybe in America”), the film is largely apolitical. Similarly, Omar, which follows characters who participate in militant resistance activity, could easily have been an examination of violence in Israel. However, the violence registers primarily as a plot point in a story of human betrayals. By focusing on story rather than political analysis, both Captain Phillips and Omar undermine the expectations of the audience by using highly political stories to offer unusual takes on established cinematic genres.

Of the two films, Captain Phillips is more obviously indebted to a specific film genre. Greengrass directed the Bourne films, and despite the vastly different subject matter, it is easy to see the through line between those dark action flicks and the ostensibly more high-minded Captain Phillips. Visually, the film alternates between shaky, handheld close-ups and clean, ostentatious shots, like the frequent wide angle establishers that pan up to various ships and military vessels. The handheld work would not seem out of place in a more serious, analytical film. However, when paired with its energetic score, the film plots out familiar beats that establish it firmly as an action film.

Hany Abu-Assad's Omar

Meanwhile, Omar’s relationship with film genre is subtler—and its politics are more central. The film’s first scene features the titular character climbing a wall to reach his friends and the woman he loves on the other side. His motives are both personal and political: while at the friend’s home, the viewer observes friendly banter and barely-concealed attraction, as well as the men engaging in target practice and discussing methods of resistance. After a scene in which Omar’s friend shoots an Israeli officer—Omar himself offers to do so, and the act is carried out with chilling indifference from all involved—he is soon arrested, interrogated, and viciously beaten. Up to this point, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is depicted as a series of daily personal indignities. One might expect for this to then escalate into an examination of the larger political forces that shape those daily encounters.

However, the film does just the opposite: the further it progresses, the more its focus narrows onto the personal, rather than political. After being informed by an Israeli intelligence officer, Rami, that they know about his relationship with a young woman named Nadia, Omar spends the rest of the film navigating his divided loyalties between his friends and the Palestinian cause, and his desire to ensure Nadia’s safety. During one scene in particular, in which Nadia unwittingly reveals the film’s most personal betrayal, it is suddenly clear that the work was a sort of fractured film noir all along. Interestingly, this awareness of the film noir genre refocuses the film’s politics. Much as traditional American noir depicted Los Angeles as a sort of barren, sun-soaked Hell, Omar uses elements of the genre to depict Jerusalem as a noir landscape where the characters are trapped in a hopeless situation—characters discuss going abroad, but never leave. While the nihilism of Los Angeles was a result of formless geography and post-war malaise, Jerusalem’s hopelessness emerges from the city’s dehumanizing politics, which normalize betrayals large and small between both enemies and close friends.

While neither Captain Phillips nor Omar directly acknowledge their debt to these established film genres, both films engage with the devices and tones of the genres they emulate. The effects achieved by this engagement varies, with one acting as a somewhat traditional but effective spin on the action film and the other using the noir tradition to deliver a political message without directly addressing politics. However, both demonstrate the power of cinematic tradition and the liberation possible through established genres.