Hanks-Led "Captain Phillips" Is Mostly Seaworthy

Director Paul Greengrass has the distinction of making the best film that I will never, ever see a second time – 2006’s September 11th drama, “United 93.” It’s been more than 7 years, but I recall the sheer dynamism of the film overpowering me, Greengrass’ skills as a visual storyteller shepherding its stark, sobering screenplay exactly where it needed to go. I can still remember the end credits being met with the best kind of silence – stunned, mournful, and reflective.

“United 93” encompassed the best and worst of humanity – and the gamut of human emotion – without ever crossing into emotional manipulation. For once, the term “reenactment” was given a good name. Greengrass’ “Bourne” sequels didn’t pack the same punch, but his undeniable way with the language of film made them propulsive in the face of some pretty ridiculous story elements.

His latest, Tom Hanks-starrer “Captain Phillips,” sees the director back in the “based on actual events” saddle. And while it’s an often-stunning technical showcase – 90% of the film takes place at sea – Billy Ray’s screenplay is too straightforward for Greengrass’ “impartial observer” style. More adversely, the simplicity of the story doesn’t justify its overlong running time (135 minutes). The result is a competent maritime thriller that doesn’t quite fulfill its potential.

The whole enterprise gets off to an uneasy start. Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) is shown in his home in Vermont, preparing for a trip around the horn of Africa. It’s April 2009. He’s the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship with a crew of 20. He bids goodbye to his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), while speaking briefly of his children (none of whom are seen in the film). It feels like Ray and Greengrass aren’t comfortable giving Phillips a fleshed out backstory, instead giving him a token one. Keener is never seen again and Phillips is soon in port, prepping his crew.

Meanwhile, a teenaged Somali pirate is doing the same. His name is Muse (first-time actor Barkhad Abdi), and infighting amongst is his co-workers has gotten the better of him. He’s resolved to prove his bravery to his boss, his friends, and himself. The screenplay does well to humanize him and his cohorts, but it only furthers the story’s sense of inevitability. There’s no mystery as to who these pirates are or why they do what they do. As Muse goes on to proclaim, “It’s just business.” Happily, Abdi is fantastic in the role, justifying the character’s extensive screen time.

As the Maersk Alabama begins its journey, it’s surprising how quickly the pirates attack. There are mere minutes of smooth sailing for the ship before the first attack, with very little time is devoted to character development. First mate Shane Murphy (Michael Chernus) is the standout among Phillips’ crew, with no one else making much of an impression. That Muse gets more attention than any other character in the film is an interesting choice, one that underscores the pic’s intent of contradicting its own title.

Hanks is very good in the role – downright fantastic in its final minutes – his everyman persona going a long way in eliciting attachment on the part of the audience. But the underdevelopment of his personal life haunts much of the piece, leaving us with little more than… Tom Hanks. Again, Hanks is terrific because it’s so easy to project one’s own fears and worries onto him. A less likable actor could never layer such a one-dimensional character this expertly. But for a screenplay based on a book by the man himself, it pays mere lip service to its subject. He was heroic because… his family? A family that we never see (beyond Keener’s brief cameo in the first act).

Perhaps the film’s point is that Captain Phillips is you, me, all of us – an ordinary man capable of extraordinary things in the face of death. And it’s a point well taken. But it’s not particularly fresh, and does little to sustain the fever pitch of the endless third act. The movie’s final set piece, set in an orange lifeboat, goes on and on, constantly trying to top itself by playing the same note over and over again. It’s reliably claustrophobic and the acting by Hanks and Abdi is top-notch, but its suspense is betrayed by inevitability – a problem that the best true-life stories manage to circumvent.

Problems aside, Hanks is tremendous in the final moments of “Captain Phillips,” a snapshot of an actor at the pinnacle of his profession. It’s the one passage of the film that taps into the kind of primal, raw emotion that the real Captain Phillips surely went through. Though the rest of the picture is strangely hollow, the ending elevates the whole above plain competence. Credit to Greengrass for providing Hanks with the means to hit hardest when it matters the most.

“Captain Phillips” is not a great film, but it’s not unworthy of discerning moviegoers. Its techs are uniformly impressive, its two lead performances striking, and it has its fair share of suspense. If only the unfocused screenplay (and its muddled politics) had undergone a tune-up or two, it might have been a definitive high-seas thriller. As is, I wish that the subject matter had found a better writer-director match than Billy Ray and Paul Greengrass.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: October 11, 2013
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenwriter: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, John Magaro, Angus MacInnes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use)