3 out of 4 stars
As he often does, English director Paul Greengrass has chosen a nonfictional event and turned it into a dramatic thriller with socio-politico undertones. As he always does, Greengrass shows a preference for hand-held cinematography which is designed to impart an as-it-is-happening, pseudo-documentary feel but more often than not merely results in audience motion sickness. As the setting for “Captain Phillips” is on various sea-faring vessels, his latest film is also not something that is experienced but rather endured.
The biggest problem filmmakers face when making movies based on real events is in presenting a story with an ending almost everyone already knows. What goes on in “Captain Phillips” took place just four years ago and was covered extensively worldwide by every news outlet large and small. The same can be said for “United 93,” Greengrass’ Sept. 11 movie about the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pa. What made that much-better film so gripping was everything that led up to the crash — the tiny details very few people knew anything about going in.
In adapting the book “A Captain’s Duty” by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, screenwriter Billy Ray is given perhaps the hardest job of anyone associated with the production of the film — on-screen or off. He takes what by all accounts would normally be a plot-driven narrative and turns it instead into a character-driven piece and most of the time it works. If Greengrass had trimmed at least a half hour off of the films’ taxing 134 minutes, Ray’s efforts would have been all the more impressive.
While bearing next to no resemblance to the real Phillips, Tom Hanks was probably the right guy for the gig on a number of levels. In addition to his considerable box-office cachet, Hanks brings with him the type of everyman attitude that has made him his generation’s Jimmy Stewart and that is exactly what the part demands.
To add that Hanks is in full Oscar-seeking mode with the performance would be entirely accurate and fair but not at all a slam, mostly because he does so with understated finesse. For the first 90 minutes, Hanks doesn’t even appear to be acting, but instead — as touted in every acting class ever conducted — reacting. It is in the film’s last act that Hanks’ “traditional” acting skills kick in and he is superb. He’ll get an Oscar nomination, but probably won’t win (more on that in a couple of weeks).
Providing considerable (make that glaring) contrast to Hanks are the four actors playing the Somali pirates that raid the Kenya-bound cargo ship captained by Phillips and they’re the antithesis of understated (which was probably the intent of the filmmakers). Chosen as the group leader largely because he speaks English, Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his three cohorts are bug-eyed, full-tilt-boogie for the duration. Brandishing AK-47s, low on hygiene and sorely lacking in negotiating skills (much like the current U.S. Congress), the pirates conduct themselves as if they were toddlers with loaded diapers who just downed multiple espressos and pounds of chocolate.
Almost bouncing off of the walls the pirates do everything perfectly wrong but because they have the guns, they have the final say. This begs the question — why don’t U.S. cargo ships hire armed security personnel? Dousing would-be pirates via fire hoses is not the ideal choice of defense and could be the reason why U.S. ships regularly become ripe targets — as opposed to the Russian and the Chinese ships that are armed to the teeth. Try raiding one of those and see how far you get. Hiring trained marksmen is a whole lot easier (and cheaper) than paying seven-figure ransoms or calling in the Navy to save your behind after the fact.
For those (and that would be almost everybody) familiar with what actually happened in the end, Greengrass bilks, milks and delays the payoff for longer than he should, then ultimately ends it probably quicker than most would like. An editorial aside: if the U.S. ended every hostage/terrorist situation the way they do here, the amount of hostage/terrorists scenarios would be in steep of not immediate decline.
If that herky-jerky camera thing doesn’t bother you and you don’t mind knowing the outcome going in, “Captain Phillips” is just the sort of movie that will rope you in and keep you strung out from start to finish.
Presented in English with frequent Somali with English subtitles. (Sony/Columbia)