The most shocking moment in Captain Phillips, which re-creates the ordeal of a freighter captain kidnapped by Somali pirates, comes in the very first shot: an exterior of Phillips’ Vermont home, for which the camera is perfectly still. This is a film by Paul Greengrass, director of two Bourne movies and the high lama of queasy-cam cinema. Did Greengrass undergo a late conversion to cinema classicism, where the camera rests on a tripod and audiences needn’t take Dramamine before entering the theater?
Nope. Greengrass is back to his old shake-‘n-break games by the time Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) drive from their home to the Burlington airport; their conversation is filmed in alternating closeups that let viewers count the actors’ pores like a dermatologist with a magnifying glass. Phillips is to take a flight to East Africa to pilot the container ship M.V. Maersk Alabama toward a rendezvous with international piracy. There the directorial point of view alternates between macro and micro: helicopter views of the Gulf of Aden and the jittery closeups of a documentary cameraman dancing barefoot on hot coals while trying to keep the action in focus.
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The action ought to be plenty exciting, and it often is. Anxiety surely seized the sailors of any vessel plying those waters in 2009. Somalia, which on maps looks like the rhino nose guard on the Horn of Africa, had been host to hundreds of acts of piracy and kidnappings that netted the perps $80 million in ransom the year before. The Somali civil war had led to the disbanding of the country’s navy, leaving maritime commerce in the gulf essentially unprotected. So the crew of the Alabama knew they could be sailing into trouble.
Phillips’ story is well-known: it was reported in TIME and other media as it unfolded over five April days and, for anyone not following the news then, has been in every recent story on the movie. So it’s not a spoiler to say that Phillips survived the escapade and wrote a book about it. A piece on CBS Sunday Morning reveals that the real captain doesn’t speak in the broad Yankee accent that Hanks sometimes assumes and that he looks like a cross between fellow New Englander Stephen King (whose father was a merchant seaman) and George Clooney, who was otherwise engaged shooting Gravity, a similar tale of a man whose job puts him in danger far from home, but one which is set in space, not on the sea.
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Richard Phillips’ calm, tough demeanor and the flinty resolve he displayed in protecting his crew make him a good fit for Hanks, who in many films (including his own astronaut gig, Apollo 13) has played the competent, ordinary guy whom dire circumstances force into extraordinary valor. He was stranded offshore before, too, in the 2000 Cast Away. But that trauma was a stroll on the beach next to his face-off with Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the Somali pirate who commandeers the Alabama, points a gun in Phillips’ face and says, “I’m the captain now.”
The interplay between Phillips and Muse duplicates the elemental tension of any western confrontation: peaceful hero vs. armed villain. But it does cause a viewer to wonder why, when the Alabama crew members first saw the tiny pirate skiff overtaking their huge ship, they didn’t follow the great American tradition of taking out their rifles and shooting the invaders. As members of the Seafarers International Union, Phillips’ real-life mates had received small-arms training for just such an emergency. Yet Billy Ray’s screenplay shows them using only the ship’s hoses in an attempt to flood the skiff and repel the pirates. Does an American’s right to bear arms not extend to an American ship traveling through hostile waters? (That’s not a rhetorical question; I can’t explain it.)
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Many of the pirates had been fishermen, and some Somalis have insisted that foreign ships poisoned the fish by dumping toxic waste in the water. Poverty and revenge may have given incentive to the young men, whom Abdi and the other excellent Somali actors portray as teens driven less by greed than desperate bravado. They are lost boys trying to play Peter Pan or, in a pinch, Captain Hook. When they take Phillips hostage in a lifeboat and are later surrounded by the U.S. Navy and a SEALs contingent hungry for a Zero Dark Watery adventure, the young renegades’ resourcefulness turns into cluelessness, and Phillips has the feeling he’s inside a collective mind verging on madness.
Shaky-cam complaints aside, Greengrass is a master at managing complicated activity with docudrama urgency. He proved that in United 93 (2006), the tick-tock thriller about passengers on a hijacked 9/11 flight, and more fancifully in the 2010 Green Zone, set in the first months of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which turned Matt Damon into a kind of Bourne in Baghdad. (Both films graced TIME’s Top 10 Movies lists of their respective years.) Creating zigzag lines of screen conflict, Greengrass floods the moviegoer’s eye with enormous amounts of assimilable detail. Those gifts are on offer here too, but in a scenario lacking in suspense. You wait not for Phillips to be saved but for the young pirates to crack. They are four kids in a lifeboat against the world’s most powerful navy. What’s at stake is the boys’ doom, not the captain’s life.
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Hanks has a wonderful scene, late in the film, that shows a strong man collapsing into frailty. It hints at the emotional depth the movie might have plundered. The rest of Captain Phillips must rely for its drive on the relentless mechanical agitation of Henry Jackman’s score. It can’t save an overly muscled docudrama that is more pounding that truly gripping.