Captain Phillips, the titanic new movie about the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, is a case study in various forms of cinematic grueling. It opens with about a good half-hour or more of superfluous scenes littered with mind-numbing exposition. The titular Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his loving wife Andrea (Catherine Keener, conspicuously underused) talk in the broadest Baw-stonian platitudes about the trials of raising children. The conversation is presumably meant to convey decades of intimacy, but it’s as though they just met. “Right now the world is moving so fast,” says the Captain. “You gotta be strong to survive out there!” Meanwhile on the other side of the ocean Somali fishermen-turned-pirates turn out to be human too. Even if they have to say stuff like, “You worry about yourself, skinny rat!” Once the Alabama is moving through foreign waters, there are numerous scenes in which the Captain keeps reminding everybody on board to take extra safety measures—there are pirates in Africa, don’t you know. That there is foreshadowing. It is also, perhaps, insurance: we are never to doubt Phillips’ preparedness. The script is by Billy Ray.
Once we get through that kind of grueling we move on to the sort of grueling for which director Paul Greengrass is celebrated. The Somali pirates eventually make it aboard, there’s lots of shouting and bulging eyeballs and rifles waved about. The handheld camera is suitably seasick. The Captain, who the pirates dub ‘Irish,’ sweats a great deal, and comes up with ways to delay the pirates’ discovery of the rest of the crew who, in accordance with protocol, are hiding in the engine room. There are many cutaways to engines and rudders. A teenage pirate cuts his foot and man, does it look bad. Eventually the pirates take whatever cash is on board and depart in a lifeboat with the Captain as their hostage. Things get claustrophobic. We are certainly engaged now. Eventually Navy SEALs come and, of course, it all ends badly for the pirates. Could it have been otherwise? “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people,” says the Captain. “Maybe in America, Irish,” says chief pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi, quite good in a pathetically underwritten role). “Maybe in America.” The film ends with the Captain getting treated for wounds and shock in a protracted sequence—the sort of thing that seems designed explicitly for the Best Actor roll call—with Hanks getting really, really into his role.
I mean no disrespect to the heroism or trauma of the real Rich Phillips or, for that matter, to the genuine desperation of the Somali pirates, when I say that Captain Phillips is kind of appalling. When the film sticks to conveying the events as tersely and matter-of-factly as possible, it more or less works as an unnerving docudrama thriller, but its meandering, over-simplistic attempts to make a grand statement about economic inequities or globalization or whatever boggles the mind and insults the moral intelligence of its audience. Watch the similar but much better Danish film A Hijacking instead.