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‘Captain Phillips’ tense, high seas docudrama with Tom Hanks at helm

Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."
Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."
Hopper Stone, SMPSP © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Captain Phillips


Captain Phillips,” the latest movie from Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”), based on the real life hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and the hostage drama that followed, is a serious drama and a quality project that never seems to quite muster the impact it should. Still, this high seas docudrama is a tense and affecting production.

Tom Hanks is the only big name in the cast, and brings sincerity and an air of quiet decency to the title character. Although this is Hanks’ first time being directed by Greengrass (or almost anyone other than Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard or Robert Zemeckis, for that matter), this is vintage Hanks territory. He’s excellent here, particularly in his last scene in the movie. Nonetheless, it’s newcomer Barkhad Abdi as a desperate, young Somali fisherman turned pirate who steals the show with a chillingly believable performance.

“It’s going to be alright, Irish,” Abdi frequently reassures Hanks. It’s clear that Hanks’ Captain Phillips isn’t in the least sure he believes him.

An important element of his direction here is accomplished simply by the physical types he’s cast. Hanks and his crew are largely caucasian and overweight, in stark contrast to the lean, hungry and gaunt-looking actors playing the Somali pirates. The Navy crews and SEALs are neatly groomed, muscular and hard. Greengrass cut his teeth on documentaries, and he deliberately sets out to make “Captain Phillips” look like one. Shot on film, both 35 and 16 millimeter, with natural light, this is a gritty-looking movie with little Hollywood gloss. As fans of the “Bourne” movies already know, Greengrass is fond of details, but doesn’t beat audiences over the head with them.

Greengrass is also fond of untethered photography. Eschewing dolly tracks and even a proscenium, his camera is often handheld, following his subjects through passageways, around corners, into cramped corners at will. There’s also mistaking the fact that much of this movie was shot at sea with real ships, with impressive results. The United States Navy clearly cooperated with the production, and there would have been no reason not to. They could hardly have come off as more sober-minded and professional than they do here.

Some fact-based movies, “All the President’s Men” and “Apollo 13” come to mind, have managed to wring substantial suspense out of premises where audiences could be expected to know the end up front. “Captain Phillips” doesn’t quite pull it off. There’s a more sense of gloomy inevitability than actual suspense, and you’re apt to find yourself wishing the Navy would just show up like the cavalry in an old western and shoot someone. Needless to say, this is pretty much what happens; it just takes too long getting there. The drama in-between the hijacking and the climax, initially riveting, ultimately becomes repetitive.

“Captain Phillips” is a remarkably talky picture. Movies, unlike, say, stage plays, are not inherently dialogue-driven, and yet there’s hardly a scene here that doesn’t rely heavily, if not completely, on the spoken word. True, these are often intense scenes featuring agitated characters and Hanks often has a gun pointed at his head, but dialogue is dialogue, and regardless that most of this movie takes place at sea, it’s still largely what silent movie directors would have called a rug show.

Yet the fact that there’s a lot of dialogue doesn’t mean you’re actually effectively informing the audience. Part of Greengrass’ technique is his persistent refusal to give audiences time to catch up. This has its ups and down. There’s some dialogue that touches on the depletion of fish in Somali waters due to industrial overfishing spurring on the growth of the pirate economy on Somalia’s coasts. Chances are audiences will miss it.

Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (“Flightplan,” “The Hunger Games”) clearly have some sympathy for their pirates, who are, after all, only the last link in a chain of warlords and criminal middlemen who all stand to make more money than the boys on the boats, desperate former fishermen who take most of the risks. This attitude is not likely to be shared by the audience, likely waiting for a big action scene with the SEALs which ultimately delivers less than expected. After all, how sympathetic can you feel towards someone who’s pointing a gun at Tom Hanks?

There are almost no women on-screen in the entire movie. The excellent Catherine Keener (“Being John Malkovich,” “Capote”) is all but wasted as Hanks’ wife, who appears only briefly in the movie’s opening, which effectively sets up the title character as a completely accessible family man. Almost the only other woman with dialogue is an actual, uncredited Navy Corpsman who provides, not surprisingly, a realistically professional yet compassionate performance in the movie’s final scene.

“Captain Phillips” is now playing at theaters across the Capital District, including The Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland in Schenectady, The Rotterdam Square Cinema, The Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, The Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13, The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX and The Spectrum 7 in Albany.