Richard Phillips (Hanks)

“Captain Phillips” is a by-the-book thriller that employs a documentary-like style to chronicle the hijacking of the America cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009. Like “Zero Dark Thirty” last year, “Captain Phillips” focuses on the people directly involved in America’s response to a foreign attack. Director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) and Tom Hanks deliver a procedural drama that entertains without offering any standout elements. 

Greengrass doesn’t waste any time getting out to sea. There is a brief introduction for Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) and his wife as they drive to the airport, but Phillips is at the helm of the ship within 10 minutes of the movie’s start. The other major character, pirate captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi), is also introduced heading out to sea. Muse’s village is run by a Somali warlord who forces the male villagers to patrol the nearby waters for possible target ships. Muse picks his crew of four and departs, knowing he cannot return without something to offer. The small pirate crew comes upon the Alabama in international waters and moves in to make its score.

The best parts of “Captain Phillips” involve forcing a normal response to an abnormal event. Phillips runs his ship with the efficiency of a military instructor, and the film portrays his handling of the initial encounter with the pirate skiffs as calm and strategic. Even after the four pirates have boarded the ship and taken control of the bridge, Captain Phillips keeps a clear head and works the pirates’ unfamiliarity with the ship’s interior to his crew’s advantage. 

The plot begins to drag around the midway point. There is a significant location shift after the pirates realize they cannot control the ship or its crew. The result is over an hour of the Captain and his captors in a much more confined space. Greengrass’ jumpy
camera style in these sequences makes one feel both disoriented and claustrophobic, and makes the viewer miss the wide shots and interiors of the Alabama. 

The other major problem is the portrayal of the
pirates. The attempt to make Muse and his crew into tragic figures is unsuccessful. The justification and history is present, but the Somalis are too menacing throughout the film to ever deserve the audience’s empathy. While the portrayal of hostile foreigners is a step above what we saw in Argo — at least the Somalis are given subtitles — the pirates are still not given any greater role beyond militant fisherman who bit off more than they could chew. 

Hanks delivers a fine performance as Phillips. Far from the helpless hostage, Phillips works his captors from the moment they meet by attempting to engage them in conversation and leaving clues to help the military end the situation. Hanks goes for realism over powerhouse acting, and as the film builds to an edge-of-your-seat finale, you can’t help but fear for him even though the story’s conclusion is well documented.

Like its titular character, “Captain Phillips” is efficient. It delivers a candid account of the extraordinary events that happened off the coast of Somalia in April 2009. Greengrass’ direction and Hanks’ performance yield an interesting recent event drama that, while thrilling, is not the kind of movie that will leave a lasting impression.