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Photo by Hopper Stone, SMPSP - © Columbia Pictures

The combination of a powerful real-life story and a terrific performance by Tom Hanks, under the direction of Paul Greengrass, would seem to make Captain Phillips a can’t-miss opportunity. That it winds up being a near-miss instead is something of a letdown, despite the film’s many attributes. Director Greengrass is a master at recreating contemporary, crisis-ridden events in such films as United 93 and the unbeatable Bloody Sunday. In dramatizing the abduction of a U.S. cargo freighter Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009, however, he and screenwriter Billy Ray have failed to distill the details to their essence. After a tremendous buildup, the movie’s climax drowns us in minutiae when all we want is a resolution. (It may seem even draggier because we already know how the story ends.)  

Hanks does a fine job, as usual, playing a career seaman who treats his latest voyage as just another assignment. He is smart enough to recognize that he and his men are sailing through treacherous waters and takes every reasonable precaution, including running his crew through a practice drill. Those efforts prove to be in vain, all the more so when it turns out that the pirates who board his vessel are hotheads with automatic weapons, not movie-style villains who spout clever dialogue. The nonprofessionals who play the Somalis (including Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali) are remarkably believable—and frightening.

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Photo by Hopper Stone, SMPSP - © Columbia Pictures

I presume the book that provided this movie’s source material (A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty) answers some lingering questions about how the ship remained so vulnerable and why there weren’t more safeguards in place when it entered these volatile waterways.

Aside from that, Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd offer us a vivid, insider’s look at life at sea and how the crew of twenty did their best to elude their would-be captors. One can’t fault them for creating a realistic environment or documenting the U.S. Navy’s rescue operation. But one can chide them for letting their absorption in specifics override their dramatic instincts. Captain Phillips winds up being a pretty good docudrama that bogs down just when it ought to soar.