Most Americans, if they know Somalia at all, know it as one of the world’s really bad places to be. The recent terrorist attack on a Kenyan mall by Somalis underscores the importance of attaining a better knowledge of this part of the globe. Captain Phillips, based on a real-life Somali pirate attack, could have educated a large audience about the forces at work in this troubled east African nation. It fails, but hey, you can learn about Third World geopolitics elsewhere. The trouble is that that failure draws attention to everything else that makes this well-crafted thriller so unfulfilling.
Adapted from Richard Phillips’ ghostwritten memoir A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, the movie stars Tom Hanks as a married father of two from Vermont who in March 2009 finds himself in charge of the American-registered cargo ship Maersk Alabama, carrying commercial goods and humanitarian aid supplies from Oman to Kenya. The captain happens to be putting his crew of 20-odd sailors through an anti-piracy drill when two skiffs carrying four men apiece armed with AK-47s starts pursuing them off the coast of Somalia. The crew repels an initial charge, but eventually one boat led by a very determined hijacker named Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) boards the vessel. With most of the crew hiding in the engine room on the captain’s orders, Phillips has to negotiate with the pirates to save himself and the other crew members.
British director Paul Greengrass is best known for The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, but this film lands squarely in his area of specialty, which is taking events from recent history and turning them into taut, closely observed, socially conscious thrillers with a gritty, objective, you-are-there immediacy to them. He is always scrupulous (sometimes to a fault), and here he takes some pains to avoid turning the Somali pirates into one-dimensional bad guys, filming their preparations for the attack with the same discerning eye with which he films Phillips’ everyday duties onboard the ship. He’s assisted by a terrific performance from the small-statured Abdi, whose eyes shine in triumph at the prospect of an American ship’s hefty ransom but then close in despair as Muse eventually realizes he’s not going to win this.
Despite this, the movie never succeeds in making the pirates credible human beings. Alluding to the pressures placed on them by warlords to capture more ships doesn’t do the job. Screenwriter Billy Ray is the one who fails to sketch in these characters, and he contributes some really clumsy dialogue in both the initial scene between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) and in his final exchanges with the hijackers. Strangely, Ray is a smart writer in the historical films he has directed himself like Shattered Glass and Breach.
Maybe he should have directed this one, especially since Greengrass seems to have gone stale as a filmmaker. Don’t get me wrong — his skill at creating, sustaining, and ratcheting up tension is undiminished, and he makes good use of the claustrophobic, enclosed metal lifeboat where Phillips is trapped with the pirates for much of the movie’s second half. Still, the director is just repeating himself at this point, and the documentary-style techniques that seemed fresh and invigorating when he made United 93 and the Irish film Bloody Sunday feel rote and impersonal now. He’s lost the ability to surprise us.
Luckily, Hanks has not. As opposed to the unheralded casts of Bloody Sunday and United 93, this film features an A-list star. Hanks blends in seamlessly with the unknowns around him and with the unglamorous setting, never resorting to showy flourishes even as the end of the hostage standoff leaves Phillips an incoherent wreck. His willingness to recede into the ordinariness of this heroic character shows yet another dimension to this actor. It has actually been a few years since Hanks truly dazzled onscreen. (You might name Catch Me If You Can as his last great screen appearance; I would go back further and say Cast Away.) His performance here may not match his best ones, but it’s a useful reminder of what he can do.
Starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Billy Ray, based on Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty’s book. Rated PG-13.