Among mainstream filmmakers Paul Greengrass is the reigning master of what might be called manufactured cinema veritate, bringing an almost palpable feeling of reality even to fictional material about Jason Bourne. It’s a talent he’s used with special brilliance in wrenchingly powerful recreations of actual events in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “United 93,” and he brings it to bear again in “Captain Phillips,” a dramatized account of the incident of April 8-12, 2009, in which an American-flagged cargo vessel, the Maersk Alabama, was seized by four pirates off the Somali coast and its captain held hostage in a small lifeboat until he was freed by U.S. Navy SEALS. It’s an extremely well-made film, but for a variety of reasons not as gripping and compelling as “United 93,” with which it’s now being compared.
Actually, that comparison isn’t really the proper one. “Captain Philiips” is more akin to Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the film about tracking down—and killing—Osama bin Laden. Both are grueling stories that end triumphantly with military success; the triumph in “United 93” is one of self-sacrifice, which isn’t quite the same thing.
Still, Greengrass uses the technique he’s honed over the years to give the tale—adapted by Billy Ray from the book Phillips wrote about his ordeal—considerable punch. The sequences depicting the pursuit of the ship by the Somalis—played by Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali (all native Somalis who emigrated to the U.S., and all without professional acting experience)—and the takeover of the vessel are beautifully crafted, with superb cinematography by Barry Ackroyd and editing by Christopher Rouse; and the following episode, in which most of the crew hide from the intruders, is harrowingly suspenseful. The later scenes of the captain and pirates sweltering and bickering in the lifeboat as naval forces bear down on them and plan Phillips’ rescue are also tense and viscerally exciting.
Why, then, does “Captain Phillips” fail to reach the level of Greengrass’ earlier films, or of “Zero Dark Thirty”? One reason is the scope of the story, which frankly suffers from its relatively small scale. The recent Danish film, “A Hijacking,” told a similar story, but broadened the narrative to include the families of the crew back home and negotiations between the pirates and the shipowner, matters that this script entirely skirts. To be sure, the earlier film had serious problems of pacing and tone—to dramatize the tedium of the event (which dragged on far longer than this one), it was very deliberate, and its eschewal of highly charged moments accentuated the dulling effect. But a comparison suggests that the decision to ignore anything away from the ships and the lifeboat, while it has the virtue of enhancing intensity and a claustrophobic feeling despite the expanses of the sea, has drawbacks as well.
The second problem is Hanks. It’s not that he doesn’t given an excellent performance; he does. In the brief early scenes with Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife, he radiates the right everyman quality (even if the accent is inconsistent), and later he takes on the brusquely businesslike role of a skipper effortlessly. The arrival of the pirates transforms him into a canny manipulator trying to outfox his captors, while in the final reels he makes a convincing hostage, alternately calculating and terrified. He caps it all off with a stunning scene in an infirmary where all his character’s emotion over his ordeal comes pouring out—sure-fire Oscar bait, if one might be a bit crass.
Yet it’s undeniable that Hanks is too familiar to fit comfortably into a picture of this type. Much of the force of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “United 93” came from the fact that the actors weren’t recognizable; it allowed the pictures to achieve a near-documentary feel even though they were obviously crafted with the utmost technical calculation. “Captain Phillips” is equally superb technically. But the very presence of Hanks, who’s as singular a personality as Jimmy Stewart ever was, shatters the illusion the filmmakers are so carefully creating. That’s made even more evident because the rest of the cast has the anonymous quality of the earlier pictures; Chris Mulkey is the most familiar member among the rest of the crew, and he’s hardly a household name.
Still, even with its problems, the film is an impressive accomplishment. The attempt to provide background on the pirates may be thin—understandable, but unfortunate—but the quartet of Somalis give convincing performances. That’s especially true of Abdi as their leader Muse, a thin, reedy figure whom Abdi invests with equal measures of shrewdness, vulnerability, nastiness and credulity. The U.S. military personnel are less distinctively characterized, but the actors put across their spit and polish effectively.
It’s possible to find fault with “Captain Phillips” because one has to assess it against the highest standards—Greengrass’ own. But if it’s not the director’s best work, in comparison to that of others it’s still a potent piece of fact-based drama.