MEEK AT THE MOVIES : Captain Phillips ( 2.5 STARS )

^ Tom Hanks as pirated cargo captain in Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips”

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Back in 2009 the whole world watched rapt as an American cargo ship was seized by pirates off the coast of Africa. To save his crew, the captain offered himself up as hostage and was subsequently cordoned off in a lifeboat pod with a posse of armed and anxious pirates looking for a multi-million dollar ransom. Eventually the US Navy and SEAL Team 6 got involved and brought about a quick resolution. It made for great drama then and would seem a natural fit for film, but though harrowing, “Captain Philips” never quite gets below the surface of the whole ordeal.

All of this might come as a bit of a surprise because “Phillips” is directed by Paul Greengrass, who adroitly chronicled the intrepid doings of the doomed 9/11 passengers in “United 93.” His poignant insight and meticulous care for every passenger’s story and plight rang through cleanly and affected with a genuine earnestness. Here that acumen feels lost or at best, severely muted.

“Phillips” begins rather no-nonsense with the captain (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) driving to the airport and bantering about how their children are growing up in a harsh world where being righteous and diligent isn’t enough anymore (perhaps an omen of what’s to come?). Shortly after, Phillips and his crew load up food aid for Africa in the Arabian Peninsula and do a once over of the Maersk Alabama. Phillips is working with a new crew that aren’t quite up to his standards and neither is the ship, which ominously has unsecured ‘pirate gates.’

As a result of such shabbiness, once underway around the Horn of Africa, Phillips insists on drills, but just as he sounds the alarm, two speeding skiffs packed with armed men come at the enormous cargo carrier. The Somali pirates fail in their first strike, but have a trailing mother ship to refuel at, and are back nipping at the Alabama the next day.

Three things drive these men on the high seas, money, mind games and stimulants. The pirates, who can speak English, imposter the Somali Coast Guard, while Phillips, knowing they are listening in, pretends to call in an air strike and later, after the Alabama is boarded, lies about the operational condition of the ship. The Somalis, gaunt, angry and hard to tell apart, all gnaw on a narcotic stimulant known as khat and when offered thirty thousand dollars to just be gone, they laugh and whimsically mention that their last take was six million dollars, to which Phillips asks, “Then why are you doing this?” It’s a good question that unfortunately never gets adequately addressed.

Phillips’s men too, see the whole situation as a transaction and don’t want to take on the task of repelling the pirates (they use a series of high power water cannons) because they’re not getting paid enough and ultimately end up hiding in the hold while Phillips deals with the armed intruders.

There are some intriguing bits of chicanery deployed by Phillips and his crew to stem the pirates, but eventually Phillips ends up in the survival capsule with the armed men and the US Navy on their tail, and that’s where the film breaks down — or goes on too long. It becomes an endless loop of the pirates debating whether to kill Phillips and the Navy eternally searching for the right seam to let loose its mighty hammer. One thing is given : the US will not allow the Somalis to take Phillips ashore alive.

The film based on Phillip’s memoir, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” has recently come under fire by crew members who claim it’s a gross fictionalization of what really happened. Complaints, too, have come from the company which allegedly sent the Alabama through pirate infested waters as short cut to save on fuel costs.

The recent Danish film “A Hijacking” also covered a similar real-life arc with great palp and soul by burrowing into the lives and motivations of those in peril as well as their captors. Here Greengrass (who registered much respect with his guttural Bourne films) wows with gorgeous oceanic vastness and crisp, taut editing, and Hanks, on his game, conjures up a thespian tempest; yet without the charts and logs to deepen the now, the full force effort labors as much under the weight of its shallow effusiveness.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

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