Paul Greengrass doesn’t mess around with his titles. “Bloody Sunday,” “United 93,” “Green Zone” – we’re getting right down to brass tacks here. It’s fitting for his aesthetic, that infamous frame-rattling shaky-cam that certainly gives his films a sense of pulse-pounding immediacy if nothing else. His best movies, and his best sequences within his movies, are those that totally strip down the narrative, tossing out extraneous material in favor of here-and-now sensual urgency.
That’s what made his two Bourne films exceptional, “United 93” masterful, and “Captain Phillips” inconsistent, with a number of bright sequences somewhat tarnished by heavy-handed writing. As with “United 93,” Greengrass has taken real-life events and turned them into startling, unbearably tense cinematic set-pieces; but whereas the 2006 film let the significance of unthinkable tragedy speak for itself, “Captain Phillips” looks to wrestle every scrap of geo-socio-cultural-political meaning out of the 2009 seizure of the MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. Exploring the unintended consequences of globalization might be a great topic for Alex Gibney or another talented documentarian, but Greengrass and his screenwriter Billy Ray are not the best options for intricacy.
Take, for instance, the film’s opening sequence, in which our titular protagonist (Tom Hanks, sporting a passable-but-not-convincing Vermont accent) is dropped off at the airport by his wife (a wasted Catherine Keener). Their conversation, about the uncertain future facing their children, sounds like a first draft, a summarization of theme rather than an exploration of it. What’s frustrating is that formally, this scene juxtaposes quite nicely with the following sequence, of the parallel circumstances in Somalia, where a striking, gangly young man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his peers are directed by a local warlord to take to the seas and seize what they can. Visually, Greengrass has made his point; the dialogue seems oddly less confident in the audience’s perceptiveness.
Luckily, the director quickly puts the pressure on, with the riveting pirate attack that led to the seizure of Phillips’ freighter by Muse and his crew. When Greengrass is cooking, in scenes like this or the fraught final confrontation between the pirates and the U.S. Navy, there are few directors working today that can provide more visceral, thrilling results. Any number of lesser action filmmakers have cribbed Greengrass’ choppy, staccato style over the past decade, but few have had an editor as talented as Greengrass’ reliable collaborator Christopher Rouse – the cuts come fast and furious, but Rouse never gets lost in the confusion. We know where the characters stand in relation to another, and what they are doing. The shaky-cam is a method of bringing us up close and personal to the action, of compounding an already gripping scenario, not a lazy substitute for artificial suspense.
The gas pedal lets off again when Phillips, in trying to get the pirates off the Alabama, finds himself as a lone hostage in the ship’s cramped lifeboat. This is veering into bottle-episode character-study territory, and for the most part the talented cast pulls it off with aplomb. Abdi, a non-professional actor and immigrant plucked off the streets of Minneapolis, is a particular revelation: gaunt and scrawny, he’s hardly an intimidating presence physically, but there’s a fire and desperation in his eyes that explains his position of power over the other pirates. The other three Somalis are vividly and convincingly drawn even with very little background: Najee (Faysal Ahmed), a hot-headed bruiser; Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), the overwhelmed mechanic/driver; and Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), a young relative of Muse’s out on his first run. This amateur cast, like the unknowns of “United 93,” lend a lived-in, authentic feel to a story that often seems too insane to be true.
Hanks, of course, doesn’t have the advantage of unfamiliarity – but the Hollywood mega-star has built his career on likable, heroic everymen like Phillips. His performance seems a good approximation of the real-life Phillips as we’ve now seen him on numerous late-night shows and news interviews: competent and courageous, but in a very quiet, humble fashion. In sharp contrast to Matt Damon’s superhuman, Bourne-like protagonist of “Green Zone,” Phillips is never portrayed as an action hero, but a regular guy just as capable of fear and empathy as resourcefulness and resistance. The film’s final moments, of a traumatized post-rescue Phillips, features some of the best work of Hanks’ career: raw, pure, reactive emotion.
When Abdi and Hanks go head-to-head, the film crackles, again despite the screenplay’s best efforts to burden them as symbolic stand-ins. The second act, which should be an opportunity for these two actors to really cut loose in tight quarters, has an unfortunate tendency to drag as Muse and Phillips literally repeat over-obviously “significant” lines at each other. As with Cuarón and “Gravity,” Greengrass might’ve done better to just let the inherent tension of the situation play itself out.
Still, Greengrass brings it all back around for the thrilling, perfectly executed finale. As we know, the cold efficiency and overwhelming force of the U.S. armed forces won out over the rag-tag band of unfortunate, desperate criminals. Greengrass is clearly not without sympathy for the plight of the third world, driven to extremes just to survive in a global economy that has no use for it; but there remains a matter-of-fact style to his presentation that suggests this is simply how things are. From the deserts of Africa to the wilds of Wall Street, there’s no room for the little guy. It’s a smart, if heavy-handed, message for a taut modern thriller.
Still playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars