Captain Phillips ★★★

What begins as a captivating thriller with an eye-opening socioeconomic perspective ultimately devolves into a tedious piece of American military exhibitionism (it takes everything in my power to avoid using the overly-used word propaganda here). Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips manages to explore a truly rewarding juxtaposition between the coastal warlord-oppressed Somali and American blue-collar ways of life, only to drop all of it the moment a US Navy ship appears onscreen. What could have been a completely compelling backdrop and a commentary on the vast differences between cultures instead becomes an us-versus-them story of tactical out-maneuvering.

Greengrass’s usual approach to shaky in-the-moment camera operation is a blessing and a curse in this film. On the one hand, it allows a point of view in tight confines to feel immersive, while on the other hand - combined with the undulating motion of ships - it is exaggerated to the point of inducing nausea, often quite literally. But otherwise, from a technical standpoint the film is very well produced, and tense moments are amplified with stellar sound mixing - especially in the balance of fierce dialogue and the film’s score - and the film’s only obvious constructional flaw is its narrative pacing.

While Tom Hanks performs close to the peak of his abilities - especially in the closing sequence of events - it’s really the Somali cast, notably led by Barkhad Abdi that carries the plot. It’s Abdi who deserves the recognition for his powerful and multi-faceted performance as Muse, rather than Hanks who is largely reactionary in his approach. The rest of the cast is entirely believable but not exceptionally outstanding, but it does incredible disservice to the entire film that the members of the Navy and SEAL team are utilized as a blunt instrument, presented with absolute absence of character, nor any sense of human emotions. Perhaps that’s intentionally done to present the surgical precision of the American forces, but it simply doesn’t make for compelling cinema.

The first act is incredibly tense, and the large cargo vessel allows a wonderful setting for tense games of catch-me-if-you-can and hide-and-go-seek. It’s in these moments that the movie pits two interesting worlds against eachother - those that seek to bring back a fortune at all costs, and those that simply seek to survive the exchange. But as this act comes to a close and the setting drastically changes, the entire movie pivots on its head in a far less interesting direction, placing focus squarely on the efforts of the American forces.

Greengrass presents each new addition to the constantly growing cast of naval bit players with hyperbolically heroic introductions. But without a human factor to provide any sort of motivation beyond basic protocol, the effect is akin to someone yelling “look at all these shiny hammers!” at you for over an hour. Meanwhile, throughout the second and third acts, there’s not really all that much going on, and everything that does happen is almost entirely moot.

I can’t help but feel that the fact that this is based on real events actually limits any sort of broader narrative or commentary that could have come out of this film. In the end, its rather unsatisfying climax involves a complete degradation of everything we come to know about the pirates, who ultimately get outwitted by very obvious tactics and allow a calamity of terrible decisions to be their undoing. I say unsatisfying because there’s not a whole lot of clever outsmarting occuring, but rather a gradual and incremental rending of the underdogs’ opportunities. It plays out with all the inevitability of a rock rolling down a hill.

For a different perspective and an experience that feels a lot more genuine and, dare I say it, human, I would strongly suggest watching A Hijacking. Simply put, it's a much better film.