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.
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? Sony plans to release “Captain Phillips” in October 11 following its premiere as the opening night of the New York Film Festival. Conversation about the film and Hanks’ star power should help the movie toward respectable returns, though the heaviness of the story may deter some moviegoers. It should manage some decent awards season play for Hanks’ performance and the screenplay.