Battleships down

No, it’s not a <i>Cast Away</i> sequel, despite the beard.

No, it’s not a Cast Away sequel, despite the beard.

Rated 4.0

Every word that accurately describes the experience of Captain Phillips makes it sound like the movie beats the hell out of its viewers. Captain Phillips is indeed a gripping, grueling, agonizing, nail-biting, brutalizing, kick-punching motion picture, but beyond the technical thrills and vise-grip tension, it also offers a weary, hard-won empathy.

Much as he did in United 93, director Paul Greengrass employs his punishing brand of verisimilitude to immerse the audience in a situation that many wouldn’t want to experience even vicariously. This time, Greengrass locates his handheld camera 150 miles off of the East African coast, where in April 2009 Somali pirates brazenly commandeered a container ship and took captain Richard Phillips hostage.

Tom Hanks plays Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, and Billy Ray’s script is based on Phillips’ book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, co-written with Stephan Talty.

Hanks’ casting may be character shorthand for “decent and dutiful,” but Greengrass and Ray are after more than a simple tale of heroism. The film’s bland title is almost perversely misleading, since Captain Phillips is really the story of multiple captains. While Phillips’ book bounced between his ordeal in the ocean and his wife’s anguish back home, the movie focuses mainly on Phillips and his Somali captors.

The film opens in Underhill, Vermont, as Phillips prepares to depart for Africa, bemoaning the elevated levels of competition that force him to work longer hours and take ever more dangerous assignments. Greengrass then cuts to a beach in Somalia, where viewers are immediately engaged in a more cutthroat form of job competition, as penniless men offer meager bribes to gain employment as pirates.

This is where we meet the second “captain,” a violently ambitious pirate played by Barkhad Abdi, who possesses one of the most compelling faces you’ll see on screens this year. Abdi’s Muse is selected to captain a motorboat of three robbers, but he is barely less impoverished than his crew (one of whom is barefoot), and Greengrass has an obvious ambivalence toward him as a figure of villainy.

In a perverse reflection of Phillips, Muse is also at the mercy of his bosses, but without the bosom of American prosperity and debt lending to fall back on. He dismisses the $30,000 in the vessel’s safe as not enough, which Phillips initially misinterprets as greed, not realizing that warlords will likely take every cent of the spoils.

Muse and his crew are not just hungry, they’re literally malnourished, and attempt to kill their appetites by constantly chewing an amphetaminelike herb called “khat.” It is the khat that fuels their daring takeover of the MV Maersk Alabama, but when their supply begins to dwindle during the claustrophobic lifeboat sequences in the second half, they become more unpredictable and dangerous.

Greengrass repeatedly relies on the same starboard-to-port helicopter shot of a destroyer knifing through the water that has become a staple of Michael Bay’s military-recruitment oeuvre. Some may dismiss this as fetishizing American might, but the point is that the emaciated Somalis are absurdly outmatched. They’ve brought cheap guns and herbal stimulants to a snipers-and-drones fight.

Neopolitical thrillers are Greengrass’ stock in trade, but his disappointing previous film Green Zone was a more plot-driven and less visceral take on the same sort of material. Captain Phillips is a return to the queasily compelling, relatively real-time docu-thriller approach of United 93 (and to a lesser extent, Greengrass’ two Bourne films), and its success indicates that this may be Greengrass’ one good trick.

It is possible that sounding this same strident note could cause Greengrass to devolve into a shaky-cam Stanley Kramer. The pertinent question is whether or not there is value in recreating the real-life terror and tragedy of these events beyond a bruising entertainment. In the end, perhaps we just want to be like Hanks’ Phillips, covered in someone else’s blood and gasping in shock, but reassured that we’re safe.