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Captain Phillips

Greengrass keeps you off balance — he’s a jittery poet of reality. And he proves that yet again in Captain Phillips, his suspensefully spiky thriller based on a shattering incident from April 2009, when the crew of a U.S. cargo ship, the MV Maersk Alabama, was held hostage for several days by a band of Somali pirates armed with machine guns. Early on, Greengrass echoes what he did in United 93, letting us peek separately into the lives of both the victims and their attackers before the vehicle in question takes off. Capt. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), a veteran merchant mariner, still lives in his native New England, and he’s a plainspoken family man full of anxiety about the economically bleak new world his kids are facing. When his wife (Catherine Keener) drops him off at the airport, we can see he reveres her. The film then cuts to Somalia, a land of dust and poverty, where the pirates are recruited for their mission as if they were migrant farmworkers lining up to be chosen for that day’s labor. Greengrass doesn’t have to fill in much about the violent, chaotic breakdown of Somalia to let us know that these men have little choice in life: Taking up arms to steal, or even to kill, is the central option their society has handed them. When the giant cargo liner rounds the Horn of Africa, Captain Phillips realizes he’s in dangerous waters. A radar that detects the pirates as they zoom toward the ship on two motorboats gives you a sickening feeling. As soon as they climb aboard, evading the spray of water hoses that are the crew’s only ”weapons,” we know we’re seeing a clash of two cultures: the privileged Western world, with its power and bounty (all symbolized by the vastness of that ship), and the desperate quarters of the Third World, locked outside the loop of technological progress and hope. One of the pirates, a young fellow named Muse, is played by Barkhad Abdi, who has the ravaged, bone-hungry face of a starving child all grown up. That face haunts the movie, and so does Abdi’s extraordinary acting.  Phillips sends the pirates on a wild goose chase throughout the massive ship, and Captain Phillips becomes a gripping life-or-death chess game: Who will survive? Who will outwit whom? But in the second half, when Phillips is forced to board an enclosed lifeboat along with the pirates, the film’s suspense begins to ebb. It’s not that Greengrass’ electrifying style fails him. It’s that the movie, tethered for close to an hour to the strategies and tensions aboard the lifeboat, keeps giving us things to observe, but maybe not so much to discover.

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