The director Paul Greengrass appears to be on his way toward patenting a new oxymoronic genre, the tedious thriller. In "Captain Phillips," the new Tom Hanks film based on the true story of the American freighter captain held hostage in a lifeboat by Somali pirates, Greengrass deploys his tiresome arsenal of hand-held cameras, grimy lighting and REM editing to simulate the tension of the high-seas kidnaping that ended in a Seal Team Six rescue in 2009. I would call the pace “breakneck," except Greengrass is out to break more than just a viewer’s neck. His affinity for whipsaw pans and grainy POV shots, for sweaty close-ups and butchered montage, for brawny jingoism and technical mumbo jumbo will also shatter your patience and fracture your suspension of disbelief.
There is no doubt the actual kidnapping of Capt. Richard Phillips was plump with real terror and suspense. The derring-do of the military rescue, ordered by President Obama, was his first decisive act as commander-in-chief, a prelude to the killing of Osama bin Laden. The piracy committed by ragtag Somali fishermen against these enormous vessels seemed impossible to believe, yet their frequency was alarming and the crimes attracted the world’s attention.
These incidents were ripe for the movies to make sense of them. But Greengrass treats the Phillips episode as an excuse for just another action picture. Context and relevance are thrown overboard, along with character development and establishing shots.
The Somali pirates are reduced to the type of desperate stereotypes we’ve seen before. They are young, rattled and doomed. Phillips and his crew bustle about the ship competently, turning knobs and cawing into walkie-talkies. Once the U.S. Navy is mustered, we get a lot of cross-cutting to men in uniforms, crisply barking orders to killing machines in tight haircuts, lit by the grain of a night scope. Greengrass is so busy being business-like he ignores the real people at the center of the tale. We meet Phillips’ wife (Catherine Keener, wasted) in a brief scene at the beginning of the film, but never hear from her again. We get no glimpse of the world’s reaction to the unfolding drama. Phillips is brusque and demanding, but for much of the movie Tom Hanks sits in the cramped lifeboat (which looks more like a space shuttle), offering us, by his very star presence, the assurance that he won’t be killed, but very little else.
Hanks is our modern day James Stewart and he is thoroughly believable in the role. But Stewart worked often with genre directors like Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock, craftsmen who urged the actor to dig for the psychological dirt under the veneer of normalcy. Hanks, in his first film with Greengrass, has a brilliantly timed breakdown toward the end of the picture, but you’ll wonder why you had to wait so long. You also might wonder, suspiciously, if the scene is truthful. Online glimpses of the real Captain Phillips, boarding the naval ship after the Seal Team rescue, show a man more relieved than in shock.
Greengrass directed one of the top films of the previous decade, "United 93," finding a balance between Americans’ emotional need to know what happened on that fatal 9/11 flight, and the requisites of visceral filmmaking. But he also directed two of the Bourne films and the risible "Green Zone," which was incoherent and hideous to look at. Those movies deliver early warnings of the shaky-cam creep, low-light ugliness, and Uzi-editing that swamp this movie like a bad case of motion sickness.
Rustin Thompson's blog is The Restless Critic.