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On Movies: 'Captain Phillips' doesn't rule the seas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The scene is riveting: a 500-foot-long ship, stacked high with freight containers, is pursued at 20 knots through the open sea by a small motorized wooden fishing skiff. The battered open skiff has outboard motors bolted to the stern and a handful of men in ragged clothes aboard, waving automatic weapons as they are tossed about by waves.

The half-dozen men in the skiff intend to force their way aboard the freighter, take control of it from its captain and his crew of about 20 men, steer it back to their seaside village and hold it for millions of dollars in ransom. You wouldn't believe it could be done, except you know it has been done many times off the coast of Somalia, and from all appearances, it looks like it is going to happen again as the action begins in "Captain Phillips."

The new action movie, starring Tom Hanks in the title role, is based on real events in the Indian Ocean in the spring of 2009. It is a generally effective if overlong action film that has a rousing first half and tends to slow down and become muddled in the second half.

British director Paul Greengrass first came to public notice with "Bloody Sunday," the brilliant 2002 cinema verite recreation of a 1972 massacre in northern Ireland. He is a master at using handheld cameras to recreate violent action and the fearful uncertainty of battle. The first half of "Captain Phillips" is edge-of-your-seat thrilling, as pirates and seaman battle for control of the ship. That part of the movie bears favorable comparison with Greengrass' more recent work -- he directed "Flight 93" and the middle two of the four "Bourne" movies.

The second half of "Captain Phillips," much of which takes place in the confines of a small, enclosed motorized lifeboat, eventually becomes repetitive and even tiresome. The action stalls, dark descends on the water, and for long stretches it is unclear exactly what is going on, who is doing what to whom. Perhaps that was Greengrass' intention, but he overdoes it. It's OK -- indeed, a good idea -- to mystify the audience, but sheer confusion is a different matter.

"Captain Phillips" would have been a terrific action film at an hour and 45 minutes. At two hours and 13 minutes, it is still well worth seeing, but it is also a bit of a disappointment, particularly for longtime admirers of Greengrass.

The story of the pirates of Somalia is a fascinating one, and the movie gives us a little background on the subject through various bits of dialogue -- the pirates used to be fisherman but their fishing grounds were depleted by factory ships from other countries; the fishermen are starving, and one of the few ways to make money for food is to join the pirate crews organized by warlords. If a ship is captured, the warlords demand millions of dollars in ransom from shipping companies for the return of ship and crew; if the ransom is paid, the warlords get the millions and the pirate-fishermen are lucky if they get a few coins.

A fine, complex film could be made about the fisherman-pirates of Somalia, a war-torn "failed nation" that has been much in the news lately, but this isn't that film, nor does it pretend to be.

The pirate leader, Muse, is played by an appropriately gaunt Somali actor named Barkhad Abdi, and Abdi exudes a certain Method Actor intensity that could strengthen his characterization, but Greengrass shoots Muse mainly in deep shadows -- the director is too much in love with dark shadows -- and it's hard to see what this potentially intriguing character is really like. It's as if Greengrass didn't trust Abdi to actually act, in the full light of day.

Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips as a flinty Vermonter who misses his wife (Catherine Keener) and keeps talking about quitting the sea trade, but you gather it's mostly talk. The performance is not among Hanks' best -- his northern New England accent comes and goes, but more importantly, he strikes no sparks of individuality. It's as if Hanks was trying to so hard to make us see that Captain Phillips was an ordinary man who was able to rise to extraordinary challenges that he forget to make him interesting.

In any event, I suspect no one is going to go to "Captain Phillips" expecting a character study, but as an action movie, it is moderately entertaining. I just wish the second half were 20 or 30 minutes shorter, and better lit.

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