(by Dustin Putman
Director Paul Greengrass' hand-held, you-are-there sensibilities have served him well in past films of both the true-story (2006's "United 93") and fictional (2004's "The Bourne Supremacy" and 2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum") variety, and he continues in this docudrama vein with the occasionally arresting, no-frills "Captain Phillips." Adapted by Billy Ray (2012's "The Hunger Games") from the book, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea," by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, the film is methodic in its depiction of a real-life hostage situation perpetrated by Somali pirates in April 2009. Greengrass approaches his subjects with an unbiased eye; instead of telling his viewers what to think, he lets them decide for themselves based on the facts of what occurred. His cinematic handling is certainly intense at times, but there is also a repetitiveness to the overlong second half and an increasingly bothersome tendency to shoot so closely to his actors that the outcome goes from mere claustrophobia to, occasionally, visual incoherence. Article continues below
Maritime merchant Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) says goodbye to his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), and shoves off for his latest voyage transporting cargo across the Somali Basin. The trip is a potentially dangerous one, among the choppy seas lurking the threat of area pirates. On this particular trek, Phillips' unspoken fears become a terrible reality when their ship, the Maersk Alabama, is hijacked. Held at gunpoint by a gang led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Phillips and two crew members attempt to stall them as the rest of the crew lock themselves in the engine room and retain control of the ship. As the confrontation perilously escalates, the Navy aboard destroyer USS Bainbridge learn of the situation and are promptly dispatched. No matter how this ends, it quickly becomes clear that not everyone will be escaping with their lives.
With "Captain Phillips," director Paul Greengrass takes a mostly no-nonsense approach to the material, lending immediacy to its treacherous events. Although he does not overtly place labels on his characters, there is a half-hearted attempt to humanize the Somali antagonists. Many of them not even adults, they are first seen being hired and thrust onto a speedboat for an intended robbery-hijacking mission. Glimpses into their bedraggled, slummy third-world existences are paltry and uninformative. They may be victims of their own circumstances, but they are still nothing more than thin screenplay constructs. Better is Tom Hanks' (2012's "Cloud Atlas") exceptional turn as Captain Richard Phillips. In just a few quick snapshots, it is learned that he lives a happy life in Vermont, has a wife and two grown children, and is committed to his job even as he has also grown a little weary of it requiring that he be away for weeks at a time. In the way that he manages his crew and in a disquieting scene where he emails his wife and tells her everything is going as scheduled even as he is aware they are in jeopardy, Phillips seems like an authentic, fully formed figure. His shrewd characterization is helped all the more by the actor cast in the role. As things get out of hand and he faces his own mortality while looking down the barrel of a gun, Hanks drops all sign of inhibitions and reacts wholly to the truth of Phillips' ordeal.
Slow but steady as the stakes are raised, the picture has been edited by Christopher Rouse (2010's "Green Zone") with a pace that is at once leisurely and bursting with jittery portent. He and Greengrass draw their audience in, but aren't quite as adept at holding on their absorbing note. By the time the setting switches to a lifeboat that Phillips is held hostage within as help arrives and a standoff begins, the momentum drops as extended chaos takes over. It is in this third act where the jarring, shaky cinematography by Barry Ackroyd (2012's "Contraband") goes haywire, mistaking freneticism for genuine suspense. A good ten minutes (at least) could have been cut to tighten the pacing here, but the film redeems itself in time for an affecting final scene—the emotional catharsis after the storm.
Tom Hanks isn't acting by himself in "Captain Phillips," but there are echoes of his outstanding work from 2000's exquisite "Cast Away" in their respective water-based tales of survival. As wife Andrea, Catherine Keener (2012's "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding") shows up for five minutes, tops, and is never seen again. On initial inspection, it would seem odd that someone of Keener's caliber would be hired for such a tiny, relatively thankless part. She is crucial, though, in establishing a warm character who lingers long after she's gone, never far from Richard's—or the viewer's—mind. "Captain Phillips" doesn't have very much to say about the unsettled socioeconomic climate in which it is set, but, as a scrupulously devised adventure-thriller, there is enough that works well to overlook its stumbles. At the trusty center is Hanks, anchoring the picture with the captivating, unforced prowess of only the very best thespians in the biz.