The stretch of Captain Phillips in which the Maersk Alabama container ship is approached, boarded and scoured by pirates, suits the contours of Paul Greengrass’ well-honed aesthetic to a tee. His style of assembling a sequence from coverage—if one can call his disorienting, close-proximity, handheld movements “coverage” of anything but synecdochical fragments of actors’ bodies—matches the bewilderment of a ship crew untrained and unprepared for a potential combat situation suddenly thrust into a scenario for which they have only ever drilled with perfunctory remove.
Better than most, Greengrass understands the potential to enact the hyperactive “chaos cinema” he helped popularize along a kind of gestural cinema. Thus the action segments, in which the camera jolts and snakes after a noise, or steps unthinkingly with a barefoot pirate into a room filled with broken glass, actually achieve the style’s presumed level of intimacy. In Greengrass’ hands, the shakycam aesthetic truly can make one feel like one of the crew as they mount their unarmed and exposed defense.
So good is this section of the film that the surrounding material looks even weaker by comparison. Captain Phillips is established in such broad strokes as to feel like a joke. As Phillips (Tom Hanks) drives to the airport to head to his ship at the start, he and his wife (Catherine Keener) talk in thickly scripted chunks of theme, worried about a fast-paced world in which competition for even a sliver of the pie is so fierce. Smash cut from their cool, misty blue surroundings to the arid yellows of the Somali coast (which somehow feels dry even as it overlooks the ocean) as teenagers vie for the chance to become pirates for the local warlords and dedicate themselves to coming back to their village with a great score, or to never come back at all.
These painfully obvious moments are filmed in the same style as the action, lending tranquil scenes a farcical tension, betraying how anxious the film is to foreground some kind of context to offset how rigidly narrativistic this true story is. Indeed, the film’s third act, concerning the US naval response to the pirates taking Phillips hostage aboard the container ship’s lifeboat, forcibly aligns the film not to the pirates’ mounting realization of their doom but to the careful execution of a rescue by the US Navy. The film still trains to maintain some kind of sympathy for its young, impoverished pirates, especially for their rail-thin, caged animal of a leader (Barkhadi Abdi in a powerful first-time performance), but the same process-oriented approach that makes Greengrass so thrilling also keeps the audience invested in the actual response, shifting attention to the careful and adaptive planning by SEAL teams and naval forces.
The final standoff thus operates in clockwork fashion, and whatever the film wanted to say about the manner in which the modern global economy traps us all matters less than the resolution. Regardless of the sociopolitical commentary’s success with a viewer, however, there is a fleeting glimpse of something more profound in the end that represents a real wasted opportunity. Hanks in this film serves a similar purpose as Sandra Bullock does in Gravity: an established Everyperson put into an extraordinary situation for which they have no conditioning, providing a conduit for general audience investment in an otherwise straightforward genre exercise. And like Bullock, Hanks has a single scene that breaks the confining boundaries of the film he is in.
In Captain Phillips, this occurs at the end, as Hanks deals with the conflict resolution with such a ragged display of trauma, in which relief and terror and shock completely override Hanks’ nervous system and send him into paroxysms of uncomprehending, pure feeling. In Hanks’ last shot, he lies on a bed coated in other people’s blood, coaxed into breathing as if undergoing a rebirth. The scene breaks the film of its political airs and taps into something far more profound, explicitly finding a pointlessness to the ordeal. There is no lesson to be gained from survival, only the chance to see the alternative, and Hanks' face attains a mixture of grace and nihilism that lingers well past the conclusion.