Four years after it made headlines, the harrowing ordeal of commercial shipping captain Richard Phillips gets the bigscreen treatment care of verite specialist Paul Greengrass in “Captain Phillips.” The result is a kinetic docudrama that always impresses without ever connecting emotionally in quite the same way as the helmer’s prior “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93,” with which “Phillips” forms a loose trilogy of average Joes and Janes caught in the throes of politically motivated violence. Setting sail with an opening-night berth at the New York Film Festival (where another seafaring epic, “Life of Pi,” launched last year), this impeccably well-made, gripping but grim survival tale should spark a flurry of awards buzz for star Tom Hanks and powerful Somali newcomer Barkhad Abdi, but may prove too grueling to make major waves with Academy voters or the multiplex crowd.
Working from a script by Billy Ray (“Breach,” “Shattered Glass”) drawn from Phillips’ own memoir, Greengrass traces the captain’s ill-fated journey on and off the container ship Maersk Alabama, beginning with his April 2009 departure from the port of Oman and ending with his dramatic rescue off the Somali coast after four days in captivity. The only reference to Phillips’ personal life comes in a brief but excellent scene between Hanks and Catherine Keener (playing Mrs. Phillips), rich in its sense of the comfort between two long-married people, their conversation about their children’s future masking a far deeper concern about Phillips’ high-risk profession. Indeed, “Captain Phillips” makes it clear that Phillips was worried from the outset about the possibility of pirate attack — and the Alabama’s lack of security — well before leaving port, which gives the ultimate turn of events a touch of Cassandra-like prophecy.
The pirates (who also get one too-brief context-establishing scene on the Somalia mainland) first arrive in two small skiffs ill-equipped to challenge the Alabama’s speed, though it’s a clever bit of radio theater concocted by Phillips that ultimately thwarts them. But the crew knows it’s only a matter of time before their unwanted visitors return — which they do, in a sharply executed setpiece that pits the undersized skiff (just one this time, with four occupants) against the Alabama’s pressurized water jets and evasive maneuvers. It’s a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in one of Greengrass’ “Bourne” pics, suggesting how much the director’s immersive, handheld aesthetic has been sharpened by his season in the Hollywood tentpole trade.
Where Greengrass’ earlier true-life tales were principally group studies, his latest is very much a tale of two captains — Phillips on the one hand, and the pirate leader Muse (Abdi) on the other. Though he himself is but a low-ranking functionary in a vast piracy hierarchy, Muse is head honcho on the Alabama, and Abdi (a Somali-born American emigre making his film debut) plays the role with the hungry intensity of an oppressed man taking his turn at being the oppressor. In a movie that affords little dimensionality to its characters, Abdi finds notes to play you scarcely realized were there, until this reedy young man with jutting brow looms as large as Othello.
Hanks is predictably sturdy as the embattled captain (save for a come-and-go Boston accent), playing the kind of Everyman facing extraordinary circumstances he’s played many times. He never quite disappears into the role, in part because there isn’t all that much there to disappear into, and in part because Hanks has a bag of actorly tics and indications that follow him almost everywhere he goes. But he seems confident handling the tools of the nautical trade, and his scenes opposite Abdi bristle with a quiet electricity. Much of the movie’s first half is devoted to Phillips’ stealth efforts to keep the pirates away from his crew (who huddle in hiding down in the engine room), feigning mechanical failure and offering to send the marauders on their way with $30,000 in cash from an onboard safe (except, they want millions). At every step, Hanks excels at showing what’s really going on in the character’s mind while maintaining his facade of almost folksy calm. It isn’t one of the actor’s rangiest roles, but it culminates in an eruption of emotional fireworks of exactly the sort Oscar dreams are made of.
Like in life, “Captain Phillips” makes a sharp turn at almost the exact midpoint, as the pirates flee the ship in an enclosed lifeboat with Phillips as their hostage. In turn, Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“United 93”) collapse the visual space of the film from the relative expansiveness of the Alabama to a crucible of claustrophobic tension. As Phillips and the pirates head towards Somalia — and their fated rendezvous with a U.S. Naval destroyer — you can almost smell the sweat and grime hanging in the air of the poorly ventilated 28-foot capsule.
No one in movies today, with the possible exceptions of Kathryn Bigelow and Ken Loach, does you-are-there realism better than Greengrass, further enhanced by the crackerjack editing of longtime collaborator Christopher Rouse (who also earns a co-producer credit here). Yet “Captain Phillips” suffers from a certain vague feeling that we’ve seen this movie before, both in Greengrass’ own filmography and, more explicitly, in the excellent recent import “A Hijacking,” which dramatized a nearly identical case of a Somali pirate attack on a Danish cargo vessel, albeit with even less of a happy ending. There, director Tobias Lindholm built up a fierce emotional tension by inserting scenes of not just the crew’s families back home, but also the mercenary tactics of the shipping company itself, weighing the value of human lives against the corporate bottom line. Here, there is something too dry and austere about Greengrass and Ray’s telescoped vision, which touches only fleetingly on the pirates’ motives, the suffering of the Somali people and the collateral damage of global capitalism.