Director: Paul Greengrass
Runtime: 134 minutes
Movies, like any art form, have a tricky relationship with reality. And that relationship only becomes more of a hurdle when the link to reality is concrete, and the story concerns matters of life and death, or success and failure. Even when a movie takes on a story that's decades old, reality tends to act as a roadblock to complete investment on the part of the viewer. That was the case with Brian Singer's Valkyrie, which told the story of a group of Nazi officials who attempted to assassinate Hitler. The subject matter of Singer's film is fascinating, but it fails to create an atmosphere that leads one to believe that (just maybe) the protagonists will succeed.
A similar issue looms over Paul Greengrass' newest film, Captain Phillips, even though it's a far more compelling bit of fact-based storytelling. As in the director's wrenching United 93, the basic outcome of the story is well-known, but the details aren't touched on much. Yet where Greengrass' 9/11 hijacking film was an ensemble piece, Captain Phillips ultimately zeroes in on a handful of people. Among the main subjects is the titular captain (Tom Hanks), whose cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.
Above all else, Greengrass has retained his ability to plunge audiences into the unnerving immediacy of tense situations. The story of Richard Phillips, his crew, and the Somali pirates has more to it than people yelling threats and pointing guns. Billy Ray's screenplay generally keeps things moving, while still allowing for the general emotional toll of the incident to build. Watching Phillips match wits with the pirates, who are often ready to counter their defensive tricks, provides the film with some of its best moments. The no-frills, crisp filmmaking enlivens scenarios where the outcome is obvious. We know that the pirates will board the ship, but seeing the back and forth between the two sides of the conflict leading up to that moment is every bit as compelling as what follows.
Where the film starts to sag is in its last section, which sees Phillips trapped on the Alabama's lifeboat along with his pirate captors. While the level of incidental detail shown on screen is technically impressive, the film's home stretch is where the story's endpoint starts disrupting one's cinematic investment. There's a point where Phillips tale, however extraordinary, has to segue into its harrowing final moments. Greengrass and Ray, however, are determined to keep stringing the viewer along, to the point where you wish the Monty Python lads would arrive and shout, "Get on with it!"
Despite the final act's excessive length, it does at least give Hanks and Barkhad Abdi (playing pirate leader Muse) room to chip away at their characters' exteriors. Even as the final stretch wears out its welcome, the two men's performances help dig beneath the otherwise clinical treatment of the story. Phillips and Muse are both pushed to very different breaking points, and Hanks and Abdi find the humanity beneath their characters' single-minded determination. Abdi, in particular, makes a strong impression, albeit less overtly than his famous co-star. Whatever his character's background and motivations (which are sketched out in a brief scene in Somalia), the actor never turns Muse into a garish cartoon villain. Muse and his crew are credible threats, but the pirates are far from the racist caricatures they could have been in less intelligent hands.
As good as the performances are, they still aren't enough to turn Captain Phillips in to more than ordinary. Greengrass' directing is as assured as ever, and suits the material perfectly, but the writing isn't as consistently engaging as it needs to be. This problem is only magnified by the story's ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter. It's a respectable account of the Alabama's hijacking, but there's nothing the be gained from this dramatization that you couldn't get from reading articles about the incident.