Tom Hanks has spent his career defined as a nice guy, so his raw, vulnerable performance in “Captain Phillips” is a refreshing detour – especially for anyone who still remembers “Larry Crowne.” With Hanks deviating from his usual path, it’s a shame that director Paul Greengrass and writer Billy Ray gradually push an intense movie, based on a true story, toward crowd-pleasing banality.
As he battles the morning traffic, Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) talks to his wife (Catherine Keener, nicely de-glammed). It’s March 2009; the Great Recession is in full swing. Clients want jobs done faster and cheaper, and the competition is fierce. For a middle-aged man, things were supposed to get easier. Then he leaves for his next gig: steering a ship through waters teeming with pirates.
Miles and miles away from Phillips’ comfortable Vermont suburban home is the barren awfulness of Eyl, Somalia. The men of the village, too young and too skinny, suddenly snap to action. It’s time to hijack some ships and get paid. Two teams go forth, one led by Muse (impressive newcomer Barkhad Abdi), whose saucer eyes reveal an unquenchable, almost painful intensity. He wants a humongous cargo ship that initially gets away. He won’t be swayed by large waves – or morals. When dialogue fails, a wrench to the skull of a reluctant colleague allows Muse to upgrade his boat.
The object of Muse’s desire is the Maersk Alabama, which is captained by Phillips. When Muse and his crew climb aboard, Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Borne Ultimatum”) excels. The director’s trademark shaky, close-up approach works splendidly in this stretch because you’re constantly kept off-guard. Can Phillips’ steely calm defuse Muse, a man fueled by dreams of the settled world’s gilded grandeur? What’s going to happen to Phillips’ crew? For a while, we honestly don’t know – and the agony is delicious.
That is, until Phillips is forced to deal with his captors and the perspective shifts to the Navy’s rescue mission. The crux of “Captain Phillips” is people struggling to get a foothold on life, and those folks don’t exist on the rescue squad. Human frailty galvanizes “Captain Phillips,” namely the Somalis’ quest for grandeur in the light of mounting odds and cold logic. “I can’t give up,” Muse, knowing his fate, tells Phillips. It’s a memorable moment that unintentionally serves as an interruption in Greengrass’ attempt to establish cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. God knows we haven’t seen enough scenes of urgent conversations on battleships or Navy Seals preparing in the ominous nighttime. So why not an encore? Who cares if it doesn’t mesh with the intensely personal storyline?
Plenty of people will leave the theater believing they’ve seen an ode to good old-fashioned American courage. That’s fine. I’ll remain disappointed. “Captain Phillips” should have been darker and less nurturing. It should have told a fuller story about the wobbly prosperity America represents, the one that causes white men to doubt their security and foreigners to risk their lives to switch places – if just for a little while. “Captain Phillips” is fine, but there is a better, more honest story lurking. I wish Greengrass and Ray had pursued that instead of calling for the troops.
Rating: W W W
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