The breakneck sequence during which the terrorist pursue and board the cargo ship effectively kicks "Captain Phillips" into high gear, and Hanks' performance follows suit. His calculated responses to the pirates demands, as his eyes dart back and forth, set aside questions associated with the questionable accent and foreground his speedy calculations. Matched by newcomer Abdi, who possesses a cunning instinct to match Phillips' trained calm, Hanks takes on the role of negotiator before the real negotiators arrive, carefully playing along with the kidnappers' agenda while coordinating with his men to fight back. The friction between the two men creates a terrifically thick power play that grows exponentially dramatic when the pirates force Phillips into a lifeboat and face down a cavalcade of U.S. authorities.
Greengrass finds an intriguing contrast between the entire showdown and the almost casual workplace frustrations of everyone involved. "They're not paying me enough to fight pirates," argues a union man onboard the ship. That sentiment is echoed by a pirate later on, when Phillips tries to reason with them to take the small amount of cash onboard (instead of demanding millions more) and flee. "I have bosses," he sighs. "They have rules."
By then, you don't have to know every aspect of the real life events to recognize that the kidnappers are doomed to fail. During the movie's final third, entirely set onboard the lifeboat with occasional cutaways to the Navy boat nearby, they face a formidable show of force. From constant tactical chatter to casting choices that include non-professionals playing fictionalized versions of themselves, Greengrass' emphasis on authenticity is undeniably effective, and all the more impressive in the context of a studio film. For that same reason, it's acutely subversive: Greengrass shifts the plot into an institutional critique less concerned with the possibility of Phillips' danger than the obvious lack of resources that doomed the pirates from the outset. "This game isn't for the weak," Muse tells the youngest of his group, implying the kamikaze nature of their mission.
Greengrass provides just enough sociopolitical depth to foreground the movie's ideas without deepening them. Aside from Muse, the pirates lack enough complexity to make us care about them. The Americans tasked with negotiating from the other side have even less personality, as their radio banter takes on a mechanical efficiency that may serve the ideas in flux, but has a deadening effect on their emotional value.
There's something to be said about the way "Captain Phillips" finds men swept up in a drama that dwarfs them with bureaucratic systems, but whenever they discuss that issue, the script veers into on-the-nose territory. When Phillips suggests that Muse must have other job possibilities than fisherman and kidnapper, Muse bluntly replies, "Maybe in America." You can practically feel the breeze from Greengrass waving his finger at the audience.
It's hard to imagine "Captain Phillips" in the hands of any other filmmaker -- and "Captain Phillips" in the hands of Greengrass looks exactly like anyone familiar with his work would expect. It does justice to the material even while playing too conscientiously by the book. For better or worse, Greengrass' virtuous approach is a thinkpiece on imperialism that's been smuggled into commercial escapism. "I know how to handle America," the head kidnapper asserts. The outcome, it seems, suggests that America feels the same way about him.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Conversations about the film and Hanks' star power should help the movie toward respectable returns as Sony releases it this weekend, though the heaviness of the story may deter some moviegoers. It should manage some decent awards season play for Hanks' performance, the screenplay and Greengrass' direction.