I guess I could see why this would be as highly praised as it is. It’s crafted in all the right ways, and ending with an utter gut-punch, thereby closing on your strongest scene, is a clever way to beef up reactions to your film. That said, I wish it cut to black on Hanks instead of that stock-standard aerial zoom-out of the ship which stopped it from being a basically perfect ending.
But if it ended with its best, then it started with its utter worst. Poor Catherine Keener. Is that seriously all you can do with one of the basically only two female characters? That car ride to the airport was phenomenally stilted; by the looks of it I’d say it was butchered in the editing room but left in because cutting Catherine Keener entirely might have been even worse. But that’s what they should’ve done, for the film’s sake. [Side note: this and the previous paragraph are what prevented it from being a 3.5.]
The good: it’s definitely a good thriller. The first half is wildly tense and propulsive. Unfortunately, the second half sags a but under the weight of repetition. Captain Phillips does/says something -> shouting -> threatening -> navy holds them up -> repeat. And during all of this, the score BLASTED to remind the audience that SUSPENSEFUL STUFF IS HAPPENING BECAUSE SUSPENSE. This also made it occasionally difficult to understand the English of the African actors because their enunciation was flattened. I kept wishing for it to become Zero Dark Thirty and trust the audience to feel the burden of silence and the ocean that, in different ways, tortured the main characters.
Further to that: Phillips himself was a bit vanilla, in spite of Hanks’ work. He comes across as a bit of a taskmaster but this isn’t much explored; if the stories that have appeared are reliable, it may have made a much more complex film if Phillips’ characterisation tested our sympathy for him even a tiny bit. The Muse character was much more interesting, and quite mesmerising as played by Barkhad Abdi, who I’d love to see get some recognition for his performance.
But complexity was not the rule of the day. It briefly glosses over first world capitalism’s desolation of the Somali fishing industry as the fundamental cause of the rise of piracy (which was at least more than you could say for A Hijacking which was more concerned with showing the corporate brutality that leads to it, rather than its actual effects), all this in spite of the fact that – while I was more thrilled by much of the rest of the film – I was never more interested than in the scenes in Muse’s village. That was fascinating stuff rarely portrayed on screen that was both tense and intellectually stimulating.
But it’s well-directed – I’ve never seen a Paul Greengrass film before other than bits and pieces of a couple of Bournes, but he seems to know his way around this sort of thing – and it builds tension admirably when it’s not trying to conjure it out of nothing. There was some fine cinematography in there too; the parachuting silhouettes against the grey night sky actually took my breath away, and the use of light and shadow was quite nice all round.
As a whole, though, it’s only the final scene that transcends and it really threw the emptiness of the rest of it into sharp relief. It was content to tell the story and leave it at that, so I’m content to like it well enough and leave it at that.
[Stray observation: it took me about an hour, but I finally realised that the 2IC, Shane, was played by Michael Chernus who is Taylor Schilling’s brother in Orange is the New Black. And it took me until right now to realise that one of the crew was Hank Jennings from Twin Peaks.]