“Captain Phillips”: It’s not just the camera that shakes you up

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“Captain Phillips” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG-13, 2:14, three and a half stars out of four.

The handheld shooting style of director Paul Greengrass can be a mixed blessing; in films like “United 93” and “Bloody Sunday,” Greengrass can put the viewer right in the middle of chaos with a you-are-there immediacy. But in more conventional films like “Green Zone,” his restless style can seem more like an affectation than an asset.

But that restless, shaky camera is perfect for the fact-based thriller “Captain Phillips.” Firstly because all the action takes place at sea, where the landscape is dipping and swaying and bobbing already. But more importantly, the camera keeps the audience as emotionally unsteady as its characters, keeping us all trapped in a situation that’s spiralling dangerously out of control.

Based on the book by the real-life Richard Phillips, the film captures the 2009 hijacking of a mammoth container ship, the Maersk Alabama, by four armed Somali pirates. From the start, the American crew and the Somali pirates seem more than a world apart; we see Phillips (Tom Hanks) preparing to leave home for his next assignment, chatting about his son’s college prospects with his wife (Catherine Keener).

Half a world away, Somali warlords are browbeating young men into taking their skiffs out on the high seas to hijack ships, sometimes getting millions in ransom. Judging by their living conditions, it’s clear that the warlords get the millions and the pirates get next to nothing. The parallel is subtle, but smart; in an era of globalization, both Phillips and the pirates go where they’re told, transport millions on behalf of the forces they work for, and end up with not much to show for it.

On the Alabama, carrying hundreds of containers across the Somali basin from Oman to Kenya, Phillips is presented as a hard-ass, riding his new crew to follow protocol, testing security measures. His suspicions turn out to be well-founded, as two small skiffs appear on the horizon. Greengrass builds suspense brilliantly as the boats move closer, water bugs taking on a sperm whale, as Phillips and his (unarmed) crew use canny countermeasures to try and hold them off.

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But the pirates are relentless; as we learned in the opening scenes, they literally have nothing to lose. They manage to board the ship, machine guns chattering, and the film shifts into a cat-and-mouse game aboard the ship, with most of the crew hiding below decks as Phillips tries to bluff the pirates. Even with a gun pointed at his head, Phillips is still in command; he knows his ship and is able to outthink the lead pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

When the action shifts to a cramped lifeboat, however, where the pirates take Phillips hostage as the U.S. Navy arrives, “Captain Phillips” becomes darker and scarier. There’s no place to hide on the little lifeboat, no countermeasure to be taken. Hanks is, of course, one of our most likable actors, exuding decency and strength, and it’s a little shocking to see him break down, terror and despair creeping into his bones. When the emotions he’s been holding back finally overwhelm him in a rush, it’s a Tom Hanks we’ve never seen before. It’s one of his best performances.

But Hanks has his equal in Abdi, found like most of the Somali actors in Minneapolis’ large Somali community. Abdi brings a canniness and a complexity to Muse; shockingly thin, chewing on khat leaves as he waves his gun, Abdi conveys both menace and confidence as he orders Phillips around, like a movie gangster reincarnated in the body of an emaciated African. He even finds notes of sadness in his villain, his toothy grin almost wistful as he reassures Phillips “Everything gonna be okay, Irish,” when both know that it won’t.

“Captain Phillips” is first and foremost a gripping action film, but one that’s aware of the world it lives in, the economies of scale between American might and third-world desperation, and the tragic consequences when the two collide.

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