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Captain Phillips: Real facts, cheap thrills

“Captain Phillips,” last year’s contemporary piracy-themed action-drama from director Paul Greengrass, is a true story, but it is hard to say exactly what this means. The film concerns true characters: namely, a Captain Richard Phillips (portrayed here by an excellent Tom Hanks) of the American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, as well as the ship’s crew and the band of Somali pirates that hijacked it. The film relates real events: a pirate attack that occurred off of the coast of Somalia in April 2009, which eventually culminated in a showdown with the U.S. Navy, in which Phillips was a hostage.

Thus, the inevitable hubbub and finger pointing that followed the film’s release—notably, in the form of accusations against Phillip’s true heroism, made anonymously by crew members to the New York Post—notwithstanding, “Captain Phillips” is a film that, at least on the superficial level of its plot, is concerned with the facts. In other important ways, however, Captain Phillips does not feel true. If the facts are right, the tone feels false; the film’s treatment of the topic, in which more than the hijacking of a single vessel is implicated, seems inadequate.

The film starts with clever, if obvious, parallel sequences, cutting back and forth between Phillips and the captain of the pirate hijackers, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), as they prepare for their respective voyages. Following the two captains as they go about their business, we learn a little about each.

Phillips, captaining the Maersk Alabama on a routine voyage from Oman to Kenya, displays a hard-assed attention to detail, running his crew through a battery of safety drills in an exhibition of what can only be described as “Hollywood premonition.” Muse—as Abdi’s character is called throughout the film—exudes a quiet charisma, handpicking a crew for his mission, on which he embarks at the threatening demands of a local warlord. Soon, the two captains are on the water and within sight of one another, as Muse’s skiff begins several attempts to board the American vessel.

What follows are 134 minutes of deftly executed hijacking drama, as the pirates pursue, and finally capture, the Maersk Alabama, beginning a tense cat and mouse game of negotiation between the two stars. Phillips tries to protect the lives of his crew, while Muse holds out hope for a jackpot ransom in a situation that quickly starts to slip out of his control.

Neither Greengrass (a veteran of two “Bourne” films) nor screenwriter Billy Ray (who had a hand in “State of Play,” “Breach” and any number of other, equally effective and forgettable, blockbuster thrillers) is new to this territory and it shows—the narrative’s central drama unfolds in nearly real time, yet without a slow moment, as the story bounces from crisis to crisis with ease. The true pleasure standouts, however, are the two stars—Hanks delivers a powerful performance as a man struggling to keep himself together in the most adverse of circumstances, with first-time actor Abdi matching him every step of the way. The Minneapolis-based actor’s performance—equal parts tender, desperate and frightening—earned him a deserved nomination for “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” at this year’s Academy Awards.

Ultimately, though, Hanks and Abdi’s admirable efforts fail to save “Captain Phillips.” Because, while certainly effective in its pursuit of excitement, the film rarely attempts to transcend its exciting but vapid Hollywood formula. When it does—as in a peculiar, touching opening conversation between Phillips and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) or Muse’s tragic fascination with life in America—“Captain Phillips” feels like a different film, one sensitive to the circumstances that drive individuals to engage in acts like piracy, as well as the common humanity that unites such people with their victims. Unfortunately, more often than not, the cheap desire to thrill leaves “Captain Phillips” mired in all-too-familiar waters.

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