The overly-long Captain Phillips loses your attention and only tacitly gains it back.
The Somali pirate pressure-cooker Captain Phillips is less a story about the attempted theft of a cargo ship in 2009, instead treading into dangerous water about American values and our military supremacy. But the story of the American Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) - who's later kidnapped by four desperate boys with machine guns - is simply too long, sacrificing effect for buildup. Phillips is the hard-working no-fuss captain whose home life is filled with worries about his children and the fact that his wife (Catherine Keener) doesn't like him taking jobs so far away. She has reason to worry, as the Somalis in 2009 were pirating ships with such frequency that US destroyers were sent out to patrol the African coast. Phillips' ship is commandeered by four Somalis, including their leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), whose jagged teeth and frail appearance mirror that of his desperate men. But soon Phillips and his crew have them on the run, leading to Muse's capture. What should have ended as a peaceful exchange of prisoners takes a violent turn, as Phillips is kidnapped and taken aboard a lifeboat, while the Americans attempt to negotiate. As time begins to run out, Phillips must maintain his sanity while dealing with the prospects of his own mortality.
Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) wields gritty and grainy here like most directors these days, inspiring his actors into a pressure cooker of a third act aboard the lifeboat. But it's his longtime editor Christopher Rouse who leaves too much in here, from the early dichotomy between Hanks and the pirate's 'homelife' to procedures aboard the boat before the attacks. There's just too much fluff here, almost as if Greengrass and Rouse wanted desperately to respect the incredible trauma Phillips actually went through. And it's not like we're talking about a few over-run scenes here: this film needed a buzz cut rather than a trim, suffering through minutes of needless dialogue including a snail-paced second act. By the time the good (not great) third act arrives, we've caught our friends napping several times as Hanks and crew go through monotonous duties not needed to further the story. Even the third act has enough bloat to make a dietitian nervous, as Pacific Rim's Max Martini arrives with his Navy Seals ready to do business but stuck in negotiations.
Of course, it's Hanks who creates another mesmerizing performance, generating such empathy for our unlikely hero that we can't help but love him for keeping this meandering production on track. From his parental counseling of a young pirate, to his visceral reaction to the strike by Navy Seals, Hanks is us, imbuing all that is decent and honorable in people. That's a powerful draw, but not enough to keep us from drifting too often. Captain Phillips just doesn't know when too much is too much. Greengrass spends way too much time setting up our characters, before plunging them into tension that takes too long to resolve. It's not that films over 2 hours aren't effective anymore (see The Great Gatsby and the gripping Prisoners), but Phillips is an excellent candidate for a UCLA Film Editing class.
I admit that I had to leave the screening for the bathroom during the third act, something I try desperately not to make a habit. Upon my return, I asked my friend what I had missed. She replied simply, 'nothing' which tells you just how bloated this film is. Had it been reduced 30 minutes, Phillips could have been a guaranteed Oscar contender. For now, it's just a missed opportunity. Captain Phillips is rated PG-13 and has a runtime of 134 minutes.
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