Review: Captain Phillips

Paul Greengrass has built his career on making thrillers seem that realistic and tragic (The Green Zone, The Bourne Supremacy), and real tragedies that seem thrilling (United 93, Bloody Sunday). Never let it be said that he’s inconsistent, because Captain Phillips finds the director back at his old tricks, crafting a real nail-biter based on the true story of merchant mariner Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2009.

Greengrass manages to simultaneously trump up and underplay the events of Captain Phillips by presenting the actual story in a matter-of-fact manner while filming it with his usual hyperactive handheld cameras and rapid editing. Although Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, is introduced with his wife Andrea, played by Catherine Keener, the film never cuts to her sobbing in woe and worry while the world waited to see what became of her husband. Captain Phillips relies instead on the immediate drama of Phillips himself, his mostly intelligent decisions in dealing with his captors, the increasing paranoia on the part of those captors as the U.S. Navy gradually drops the net upon them, and the tactics the U.S. Navy used to attempt to rescue the hostage.

Meanwhile, Greengrass plays with the scale of the massive Maersk Alabama, and the logistics of how four armed former fishermen could conquer a vessel larger than their village back home. The siege on Phillips’ ship is a wonder, and the Under Siege sequence where the crew attempts to stealthily ward off their attackers ratchets up a taut, commendable intensity.

And yet while Captain Phillips is truly thrilling in fits and starts, and Hanks’ performance – particularly in an incredible post-traumatic stress sequence – helps anchor the film in a welcome humanity, Captain Phillips feels like a film made more with intellect than emotion. Greengrass is clearly fascinated with the inner workings of modern maritime machinery and less so with the crew of the Maersk Alabama, including Phillips himself. The Somali pirates are given richer material to work with, and Barkhad Abdi crafts a full character out of what could have been a stock villain role, but even so Greengrass can’t resist the urge to announce their arrival with tribal drums, just in case you forgot they were A) Africans, and B) The Bad Guys. Captain Phillips is still an “us vs. them” action flick on many levels.

That workmanlike approach to the inherently harrowing, yet by-now familiar hostage crisis story genre (albeit in a nifty new location), seems to mirror Greengrass’s clumsy point: in a hostile economy, everyone is just fighting to keep their job by doing it well, illustrated by Phillips’ effort to save his ship at any cost, the pirates’ increasingly uphill battle to make a profit out of their ill-fated enterprise, and Greengrass’s own attempt to make Captain Phillips more than just a siege picture. It all ties in to Phillips’ one conversation with his wife, worrying about their son’s future in a competitive job market, which cuts immediately to a town of fishermen being bullied into piracy just to stay alive. As Phillips and Muse (Abdi) interact over the course of the film, they develop a minor rapport over their shared blue collar plight.

We get it, obviously, and while it’s a relevant and unusual message for a thriller, it’s also the only thing Captain Phillips can offer beyond an intense, well-crafted genre exercise. Greengrass plays at importance, and while he never oversells it as badly as he did in The Green Zone, he also never completely intertwines it with the spectacular set pieces and “you are there” immediacy, which to be fair are beautifully complemented by Henry Jackman’s mood-appropriate score. Jackman drowns out the dialogue with a threatening pulse when – if you really were there – you’d be too scared to know what was going on anyway.

None of this is to say that Captain Phillips is anything less than an exciting, realistic ride, but there’s an obvious effort being made to make it so much more, and that’s where the movie underwhelms. Captain Phillips raises interesting analogues between First World and Third World problems. They are worthy of a post-film conversation. But those observations pop up only occasionally throughout an otherwise standard, albeit well acted and handsomely produced three-star thriller.

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.