By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 6, 2013 at 7:23AM
The saga of Captain Richard Phillips, the Massachusetts seafarer kidnapped by four Somali pirates during a routine cargo ship gig in 2009, took place under media scrutiny and played out like a high seas suspense movie unfolding in real time. Plans for a feature-length adaptation were inevitable as soon as Phillips was rescued.
After four days, U.S. officials recovered the captain, detained the head kidnapper and killed the other three men. The tense ordeal, which largely took place within the confines of a lifeboat, left little room for embellishment; it was inevitable that director Paul Greengrass, known for turning real life catastrophes into tensely realistic nail-biters with "United 93" and "Bloody Sunday," would be drawn to the project. It's no surprise, then, that "Captain Phillips," Greengrass' characteristically fast-paced and true-to-life treatment of the story with Tom Hanks in the title role, capably realizes the scenario as it played out in the public imagination. Yet even while proficiently made, the movie fails to go beyond the call of duty, mainly fueling the same cocktail chatter the events have already inspired.
With the exception of his two first-rate entries in the "Bourne Identity" franchise, Greengrass tends to infuse his movies with a political energy on par with their breathless pace. "Captain Phillips" holds similar DNA to "United 93" in that it focuses as much on the internal debate among the kidnappers as it does the victims, while moving along so swiftly that its interpretative aspects can only be viewed in hindsight.
The perfunctory exposition in "Captain Phillips" finds confident blue collar worker Phillips heading to the airport for a routine shipping gig with his wife (Catherine Keener, in a random cameo oddly billed as a top role) and inadvertently establishing the commitment to the job that will soon come into play: "Things are changing so much," he says of his profession, worrying about the prospects for his children. "You gotta be strong to survive." (Hanks, evidently working hard to nail Phillips' heavy New England accent, actually says something like, "You gotta be stwong to soo-vive.") Phillips' capacity to survive the ensuing drama puts that assertion to the test, but it also feeds into a larger, morally ambiguous examination of American resolve: the militant strength that swarms in to protect Phillips turns his third world captors into helpless ants, and their inferiority only makes them fight harder.
Before it gets that heavy -- and somewhat heavy-handed -- "Captain Phillips" moves along with the enticing ingredients of a traditional thriller. A fleeting scene on the Somali coast establishes the ostensible villains: Heeding the orders of their menacing warlords, a gang of kidnappers assemble their team for yet another ransom-gathering mission. Headed by the assertive Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his second-and-command, the steely-eyed Najee (Faysal Ahmed), the group also includes navigator Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) and soft-spoken teenager Bilal (Barkhad Adirahman). "Captain Phillips" hardly leaves room to develop these characters beyond a few perfunctory conversations, but they're given sufficient dimensionality over the course of the hijacking to hint at the desperation fueling their antics and gradually deconstruct their quasi-racist depiction as one-note antagonists.
But first, aboard the hulking MV Maersk Alabama, "Captain Phillips" stays with the perspective of its hardworking seamen. Greengrass' capacity to capture the details of routine allow the movie to settle into a natural rhythm before it gets breached; as Phillips speaks with his co-workers, taking into account humdrum details for their voyage, the casual nature of his exchanges wouldn't be out of place in a National Geographic special. The screenplay, by Billy Ray, takes as its basis Philips' book "A Captain's Duty: Somai Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea," and firmly establishes Phillips' confidence in his job as a result. But that level of calm is short-lived.