Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass tension-cam their way through a tale of Somali pirates in Captain Phillips, an above-average thriller.
Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is just a Vermont Yankee trying to get by in this global economy, spending large chunks of time away from his wife (Catherine Keener) and kids as captain of a container ship whose routes include the dangerous waters around the Horn of Africa. On one such trip in April 2009, Phillips, worried about reports of Somali pirates in the area, has the crew drill on procedures to repel such an attack. In the middle of this drill, two skiffs and a larger boat appear on the radar, closing fast on the Alabama. With some smart thinking — creating a large wake with the speed and maneuverings of the ship and sending out a message that tricks the pirates into thinking the U.S. military is coming — the crew is able to turn the pirates back. But, as the men discuss worriedly that night, they know the pirates will return. And return they do — the next day, one of the boats carrying a four-man team led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) shows up again and this time they are able to make it on board the Alabama before their small boat is sunk. As they are boarding, Phillips orders his crew to hide deep in the ship and do whatever they can to prevent the Somalis from getting hostages.
The movie sets up Phillips and Muse as the two main players in a chess match, even as the action expands to include the U.S. Navy and the famous SEAL Team 6. They are alike — we both have bosses, Phillips says at one point when Muse explains that his bosses wouldn’t like it if he just took the small amount of cash the ship has on board and left. We see each man wrangle with his crew — both on the pirate ship and on the Alabama, men essentially say “I didn’t sign up for this” and the respective captains remind them that, yes, this is exactly what they signed up for when they signed up to be either a pirate or a worker on a dangerous shipping route. But, of course, the men are completely different. Phillips worries about his and his children’s ability to compete in a world where it seems like there are 50 men competing for each job — a scenario we see almost literally as the pirates pick their crew from a beach full of villagers desperate for work. But Phillips is talking about maintaining and achieving middle-to-upper-middle-class economic status in America, and Muse is “hiring” in a place of extreme poverty and violence for “bosses” who are warlords. Phillips and his crew have plenty to lose and know the stakes of a hostage-taking in Somalia, whereas even Muse, the smartest among the pirates, is naive in his assertion that the hijacking of the boat and eventual kidnapping of Phillips is just business that will end with a ransom check from an insurance company.
The movie lays it on a little thick when it comes to the “here’s the differences, here’s the similarities” stuff. I felt like everybody was straining to say Something Important, perhaps to class up what is essentially an action thriller. (And, yes, it’s the more serious Greengrass brand of thriller, with a more serious cerebral lead in Hanks, but it’s a thriller nonetheless.) I kept thinking back to United 93, Greengrass’ 2006 movie about the United Airlines flight that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11. That movie, with its cast of unknowns and no pre- or post-Sept. 11 scenes, felt like a reenactment of a transcript of events. Perhaps because the day (especially in a movie released five years later) needed no embellishment, there was no embellishment — it was simply a gut-punch of a film about a tense and horrible situation. Here, I felt like Greengrass was trying to frame the story as part of something larger, whereas the movie is at its best when it simply shows (not unlike United 93) what happened and how people (often doing their job with reassuring competence even in extremely stressful situations) responded. Too often, the movie gets a nice moment — usually involving Hanks’ ability to be genuine and relatable while his character is doing something quick-witted and brave — but then finds some way to needlessly underline it. I found myself wishing the movie would stop trying to tell me the “Way of the World” and just tell me a story.
When the movie gets out of its own way, Captain Phillips can be smart, immediate, suspenseful and fascinating for the look it gives us at this dangerous business on the other side of the world. B-
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images and for substance abuse. Directed by Paul Greengrass with a screenplay by Billy Ray (based on the book, spoiler alert, by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea),Captain Phillips is two hours and four minutes long and distributed by Sony Pictures.