‘Captain Phillips’ very nearly achieves greatness

Movie: Captain Phillips; Director: Paul Greengrass; Studio: Sony Pictures; Rating: PG-13; My rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5.

It’s Oscar season, folks.

If you regularly follow the news, then you already know the story. The merchant ship Maersk Alabama was hijacked by a small band of Somali pirates in 2009. This film chronicles those events with a focus on Captain Richard Phillips, and the screenplay by Billy Ray was adapted from Phillips’ own book on the misadventure.

And that’s the plotline. With two hours and 15 minutes on the clock, there should be plenty of room to develop the character outside of just the action of the events, but somehow the editing and screenplay work against what an audience needs in a biopic.

What does work, and what will keep the audience interested throughout, is the amazing performance by the always amazing Tom Hanks as Phillips.

Terrible New England accent aside (which initial takes should have shown all involved that he should just go accentless), Hanks is at an all-time high here and you may very well be seeing him at the Academy Awards. As a leading man, Hanks has thrived on tugging at emotions and showing more humanity in a single glance than many other actors can muster throughout an entire film. And that’s all needed here because the interplay between characters in the film is largely subtle. There’s a big language barrier, although a couple of the pirates have passable English and oftentimes the pirates don’t want anybody talking in the first place.

In the opening scene, Phillips and his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener, in her only scene), head out to the docks for him to ship off. Their talk is bland and sounds much like a real world chat between a husband and wife on the state of affairs today. Although there is a bit of a chat about how his shipping off can be difficult, which ends with a promise of him calling her from port which is probably the standard game, it largely features the downed economy and how difficult it is for young people to make it in this world compared to when the two of them were growing up.

Regular chat, yes, but also the introduction to the limp commentary that surfaces throughout the film without any real attention paid to it. Somali pirates are a people without a stable homeland

and, it seems to be said, the works of Western imperialism are upon

them. Their fish are driven off,

their way of life supplanted by modern capitalism.

Paul Greengrass is an excellent director of action sequences. His handheld camera work shined in the latter two Bourne films, adding an energy that helped fight sequences and tense suspension sequences keep you at the edge of your seat. But this film takes place on a big ship in the middle of the ocean, with nearly nothing energetic going on with which to use his signature style.

In fact, the whole second part of the middle section draws on and on without enough going on to hold your interest. A long shot of a covered lifeboat cruising ever-so-slowly across a great expanse of rather placid waters in the middle of the night is so monochromatic in looks and story matter that you may drift off along with the ocean.

But let’s backtrack. This film is named “Captain Phillips” for a reason.

It is about him.

But what will you know of the man outside of this one fragment – albeit a very important and life-changing fragment – of his life?

The early chat with his wife reveals him to be an everyman, which is Hanks’ forte. His initial inspection of his ship, noting the lack of locks on exterior stairwells, and the all-business way in which he deals with his crew reveals him to be a man of structure and responsibility.

He’s an average man thrown into an extraordinary situation, and then comes out of it alive. That’s not giving anything away because you should all know the story.

He took the necessary precautions. He made sure the locks were on all the doors and that his crew was prepared for pirates with drills and by attaching all the outward hoses that will spray down in torrents heavy enough to flip a pirate skiff. Battening down the hatches, if you will. But, of course, the best-laid plans still aren’t enough when a determined-enough force wants aboard. A little bit of levity in lieu of just some of the business materials would have sold him as more sympathetic.

The pirates, played by Somali-American immigrant non-actors, storm aboard in a hail of automatic rifle fire toward the bridge. The crew is unarmed, and, as a couple of lifers put it, they’re union and they didn’t sign on to fight pirates.

The film is well worth the price of admission and the detracting elements really just keep this film from being great, rather than just above average as it stands.

But when you leave the theater, the final scene will stay in your memory. Hanks, as said before, is at the top of his game. My final word of advice would have been to keep the running time intact, but take some of that repetitive drifting out. Reveal the people involved, because it’s not a human tragedy if we don’t get to know them well enough.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)