For proof that we’re about to rush headlong into awards season, look no further than Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, our first true work of unabashed Oscar bait. The film is an occasionally solid enough thriller based on the true events of a sea captain taken for ransom by Somali pirates. Unfortunately, the film’s too often a mixed bag, saddled with certain wonky pretensions that are at odds with its inherently shallow nature — something that often detracts from its occasional noteworthy strength: suspense.
Obviously, a lot of the blame should be placed on Greengrass, and not just because of his usual shaky-cam style. Despite some theaters warning patrons who suffer from motion sickness beforehand (making a movie that induces physical illness seems a bit counterintuitive, perhaps), Greengrass’ style is, per usual, negligible. What he has is an extremely simple, overlong story that he attempts to imbue with depth, but doesn’t quite know how. The film opens with some hamfisted foreshadowing, as our titular Captain (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) discuss how the times, they are a-changin’. Not long after, we get to the film’s first unintentionally funny moment, as Phillips, who’s about to captain a cargo ship down the east coast of Africa, is mapping his route. The camera slowly zooms in on the words “SOMALI BASIN” on the map as ominous music swells in the background.
Once Phillips’ ship is — yep — besieged by a small group of Somali pirates and we get to the actual thriller aspects, which take an inordinate amount of time to kick in, the film is on stronger footing. Greengrass, however, can’t decide if he’s making a popcorn flick or an important work of cinema. He ends up with neither. The closest thing we get to depth is the head pirate, Muse (newcomer Barhad Abdi), and his vague allusions to the American Dream. Greengrass never has the sense — or perhaps the chutzpah — to really get his hands dirty and make a statement. Instead, he just hints at it. He skirts around what might drive some Somalis into violence, kidnapping and piracy, but never really meets it head on. The film’s morality lies too much in black and white, as the pirate crew is divided into scary, angry Africans and “good ones” like Muse. Natural aspects within the script that could’ve added shading in more capable hands are an afterthought here — like comparisons between Phillips’ union crew and Muse dealing with his “bosses,” or the only outcome for these Africans being shot to death or arrested. Greengrass wants to say things, but he doesn’t want to piss anyone off either.
Of course, this is a Tom Hanks movie, so that level of politicization is impossible. The character of Captain Phillips is a shallow creation whose sympathy exists solely because he has a family (which we hear about onscreen for all of three minutes) and that he’s played by Hanks, who we’re conditioned as moviegoers to love. While I can occasionally enjoy Hanks, this is a film that plays to his worst tendencies — acting as an obvious, shameless awards showcase. Without even mentioning the Massachusetts accent he affects, we get some pretty inexplicably goofy moments in a film that takes itself very seriously. Coming from a man who once won an Academy Award for playing a mentally challenged Ping-Pong master, we get not one, but two of the most embarrassingly silly moments of Hanks career at the end of the film as he angles for an Oscar. This will probably work better for most people (one woman sitting in front of me was openly weeping), but to me, the entire film’s intentions were far too transparent. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images and substance use.
Playing at Carmike 10