“Captain Phillips”

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True to life, boredom and all

The lore around certain U.S. military maneuvers becomes an infomercial not just for the Navy or the Air Force but for Brand America itself. The undisputed champ of this category, during the past generation, was Seal Team Six tracking, ambushing and killing Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Aptly, that action spawned a gritty docudrama that was nominated for Best Picture.
The second-baddest ‘mericuh! moment might’ve come in 2009, when three Seal Team Six snipers picked off three pirates simultaneously, at a significant range, over a pitching ocean, off the coast of Somalia. “Captain Phillips,” now, is your gritty docudrama based on the memoir of the American those men held hostage.
Like “Zero Dark Thirty,” it’s plenty good, and might earn a Best Picture nod. Tom Hanks stars, and per precedent he set with “Apollo 13″ and “Philadelphia,” if Tom Hanks plays you in a movie, chances are you’ve had a bad few days. Paul Greengrass directs, in the screw-tight style that made his “Bourne” movies so compelling and, more to the point, that made “United 93″ an eerily realistic re-enactment of a 9/11 hijacking.
The sets and locations are fantastic — the contrasting feelings of confinement and expanse, so essential to a maritime thriller, ring true. On the shipping freighter and later in the enclosed lifeboat where the pirates make their stand, the sense of claustrophobia and panic couldn’t be more tangible. And aside from a few details, the screenplay stays uncommonly faithful to its source material, which again is the real Richard Phillips’ account.
Yet something about “Captain Phillips” falters. The short story arc bogs the action, which includes a heap of stalling and waiting. These are understandable tactics when you’re a shipping tanker captain waiting for help from authorities, or during a standoff between desperados and three Navy warships. While the film never turns quite dull, exactly, it does have to contend with the inconvenient fact that, in real events, many of its characters did their best to kill a good amount of time.
You could argue that part of what makes “Captain Phillips” so believable, in a twist, is how draggy it gets. A more fictionalized screenplay based on these events would have many of the same elements — a scraggly cadre of sunken-cheeked pirates, perhaps even led by a convincing unknown such as Barkhad Abdi, a Somalian national whose family migrated to Minnesota when he was a child, who plays the leader of these overwhelmed bandits. But then you’d have a more handsome lead than the graying Hanks, and you’d give him a series of MacGyver maneuvers to pull off as he fought to save his crew from inside the tanker. He’d have some thin line of communication to the military swirling ominously outside — “Dammit, I can retake the ship, I just need a little more time!” — and in the end he’d face off against the pirate captain armed with a leg-sized wrench or a length of chain. Also, there’d be a heroic dog on board.
This “Captain Phillips” isn’t that. It’s better, truer, scarier, but bumps up against the limitations of its own commitment to telling a nearly accurate story. This is a slog at sea. If you find your attention drifting in the final hour, the real Seal Team Six and Richard Phillips might describe that as first-world problems. Still, as a ticket-buyer, you’re within your rights to chase this vitamin-rich action fare with a loud, implausible “Die Hard” sequel, and regret nothing.