Thursday, October 10, 2013

Captain Phillips

Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" is the latest in a long string of seafaring films this year, from the piracy documentary "Stolen Seas" to the Danish import "A Hijacking" to two new "Kon-Tiki"s (one English, one Norwegian) to the upcoming Robert Redford one-man show "All is Lost."

For Tom Hanks, who plays Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, it marks a return to his role as America's cinematic Everyman. Audiences have long seen in Hanks a combination of intelligence, resourcefulness and integrity that makes him exceedingly relatable when thrust into the harrowing circumstances of, say, "Apollo 13" or "Cast Away."

Or here, where one of the best scenes comes at the beginning of Phillips' ordeal. He watches two blips on his radar screen - representing two Somali pirate boats - approach the Alabama at an alarming rate, tries to outmaneuver them and fend them off with hoses, then, finally, steps outside onto the deck to watch helplessly as, after several failed attempts, the pirates succeed in hooking their ladder onto the liner and climbing aboard to take command. Perhaps only Hanks could convey in silence the zemblanity of the moment, the ineluctable discovery of what he knows to be true: that he is about to live a nightmare of unspecified duration and unknown outcome.

Greengrass' hard-charging, straight-ahead style is very much that of an action director - a good one - meaning that "Captain Phillips" eschews the strategic calculations and crew-wide interpersonal dynamics that gave "A Hijacking" greater intellectual and emotional heft. Instead, we're in the lifeboat with Phillips for as long as the negotiations and/or military interventions take to unfold. As a character, he's not fully satisfying. At times, he appears petrified; at others, nonchalant, almost taunting. A scene after Phillips' rescue is being bandied about as Hanks' Oscar clip, but nobody in my group cared for it; it's quite actorly, and you just want to slug the Navy medic who keeps trying to talk Phillips out of shock.

"Captain Phillips" harkens back to a time of simpler action films, in many ways less interesting but often far more effective than today's. We're left with no real insight into the man or the socioeconomic factors that have made piracy the leading industry in the Horn of Africa. There's exactly one, very expository scene of backstory, with an unrecognizable Catherine Keener as Phillips' wife Andrea, and one "On the Waterfront"-like scene in which the pirates choose crews from a plethora of unemployed men. For most members of the audience, though, it will be money well spent: two hours of largely gripping action, with an actor we used to love standing in for us the way he used to do.

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