Paul Greengrass’ cinema-of-spasticity reaches new phony lows with Captain Phillips, a based-on-true-life 2008 tale of a cargo ship captain (Tom Hanks) who, while traveling around the horn of Africa, finds his vessel attacked by Somali pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi). From its opening Vermont-set conversation between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener), Greengrass’ film – written by Billy Ray and based on the real Phillips’ memoir– proves itself interested only in flat expository dialogue, with every uttered word chosen to impart vital plot information, character detail, and simplistic First-vs.-Third World commentary. That conversational falseness is matched by the United 93 and The Bourne Identity filmmaker’s usual handheld cinematography, which bobs and weaves with a shakiness that aims for you-are-there docu-realism, but too often gets in the way of the drama at hand.
Doggedly cutting or panning away from Hanks to the point that there’s little chance for an authentic performance to blossom on-screen, Greengrass’ camerawork is so consistently unstable and nauseating [insert obligatory sea-sickness joke here] that it proves not a reflection of its protagonists’ anxieties but, instead, merely an affection that undermines its own effectiveness by calling such attention to itself.
That sort of self-sabotage is part and parcel of Captain Phillips, which turns its character dynamics hokey by so bluntly paralleling Phillips and Muse – both presented as committed leaders who assume their missions begrudgingly, and are forced to contend with squabbling (and, in Muse’s case, screamy) underlings – and negates its cat-and-mouse tension on the ship, and race-against-time suspense on a life raft, by turning its last act into one long preordained build-up to rah-rah Navy SEAL heroism. It’s a Hollywood-style A Hijacking for dummies.
Captain Phillips screens at the New York Film Festival September 27