51st New York Film Festival Review: ‘CAPTAIN PHILLIPS’

Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Billy Ray
Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

Early in Paul Greengrass’s ‘Captain Phillips,’ the film’s titular character (Tom Hanks) frets to his wife over their teenage son, who is slacking off in school. That kind of attitude, Phillips worries, will dog him as he enters an increasingly competitive workforce… Meanwhile, halfway across the world on the Somali coast, Muse (Barkhad Abdi) wakes up on a filthy pallet in a dingy hut to the sound of shrieking voices. He emerges into the sharp sunlight to see men waving assault rifles, urging a gathering crowd of young men to take to the seas and make some money. Soon, Captain Phillips will learn what a truly competitive workforce looks like.

Captain Phillips,” based on the true story of Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship the Maersk Alabama was boarded by four armed Somali pirates in 2009, tries to bridge the gap between suspense thriller and sociological exploration of the haves and have-nots. But the film struggles to find a balance between the two approaches. Try as it might in its first act to contextualize the Somalis’ piracy within their dire circumstances, the film leaves its broader social themes on the backburner for most of its runtime.

While the film effectively establishes the Somalis’ hellish living conditions and narrow opportunities, it does not establish nuanced personalities for them; when it comes to its villains, “Captain Phillips” never goes from the broad to the particular. Of course, certain details maintain the themes of class and economic discrepancies: for instance, the contrast between Phillips’s clean white Captain’s shirt, with its striped black and gold epaulettes, and the drooping rags donned by the four hijackers. One of them even lacks shoes. But the pirates themselves, shouting threats with guns in hand, are usually as cartoonishly evil and violent as the heist crew in ‘Die Hard.’ The film’s efforts to humanize the pirates suffers from its competing goal of making Phillips’s ordeal a terrifying one.

Only Muse, the self-declared captain of the group, displays some complexity, briefly arguing to Phillips that honest moneymaking opportunities are nonexistent where he comes from.  Yes, the film is based on a true story. And it would be a heavy lift to maintain our sympathies for the hijackers as they threaten our hero. But Greengrass and company should not have aspired to loftier themes early in “Captain Phillips,” only to abandon their efforts in favor of simplistic good-guys-vs.-bad-guys storytelling.

The film’s lengthiest section takes place aboard an enclosed lifeboat as the four hijackers hold Phillips hostage, hoping to ransom him.  And those real-life circumstances create story limitations: Phillips, unavoidably, becomes an ineffectual, reactive protagonist. Whether trying to talk the pirates down or sitting silently in subdued fear, much of what takes place aboard the lifeboat feels strangely static, unaided by the overactive handheld camerawork favored by Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. (Both worked together on 2006’s similarly-photographed ‘United 93.’) Indeed, much of the real plot movement takes place off the lifeboat, at the busy headquarters of U.S. Maritime Emergency, as American officials rush to try and save Phillips.

Hanks’s performance is the best thing about “Captain Phillips,” though hardly the most complex or original of his career. At times, Hanks is merely sober and dignified, as he balances a mix of stoic composure and restrained fear. But when a team of Navy SEAL snipers splatters a blindfolded and bewildered Captain Phillips with the blood and brains of three of his captors (Muse is already in the hands of American authorities), Hanks’s performance intensifies in power. Taken into American custody and examined by medics, Hanks breaks down emotionally. Henry Jackman’s score, minimalist before the climax, swells and rises, piano and strings washing over the audience, evoking Phillips’ grief and catharsis. It is the heaviest emotional lift with which Hanks has been tasked since at least 2000’s ‘Cast Away,’ and he rises to the occasion with great force. In its final five minutes, Hanks makes “Captain Phillips” worth seeing.

Full Apple   Full Apple Full Apple/5

David Teich

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