Captain Phillips might be too racially dim-witted to take seriously.
True, director Paul Greengrass clearly doesn't want anyone to pay too much attention to his film's racial dynamic; he's much more focused on refining his irritating cinematic technique. Both early and late in the film, Greengrass' choppy, disorienting hand-held camera intensifies some suspenseful encounters. Yet his take on the real-life ordeal of a commercial cargo ship captain (Tom Hanks) whose freighter is hijacked by Somali pirates demands a greater level of moral and political seriousness than he is willing to give it.
On one hand, there are enough examples of simplistic, insulting racial stereotypes in Captain Phillips to make a strong case that this movie is, whether intentionally or unintentionally, kinda racist. On the other hand, previous Greengrass films like United 93 are fairly clumsy and indifferent about characterization but really gung-ho about presenting things like the logistical details of government-backed rescue missions. Are the film's thin characterizations then excusable as symptoms of a general — and color-blind — artistic failing?
Greengrass believes that man doing is synonymous with man being, which puts him in good company. The straightforward presentation of human action, when complemented by the notion that human nature is stubbornly opaque, is part of a rich cinematic tradition. In the hands of contemporary filmmakers like Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne — whose The Kid With a Bike was one of 2012's best films — these two ideas combine to illuminate the ways in which action defines character. What's more is that the Dardennes' techniques and ideas support each other completely.
In contrast, it requires much vigorous and vigilant self-deception to stay emotionally invested in Captain Phillips without wincing at both its ragged visual style and its increasingly cartoonish portrayal of bad black boys. By the end of the movie, one pirate's gigantic pop eyes and regular fits of rage make him look like a Sambo figurine gone berserk; another one, while somewhat three-dimensional, becomes a heartless foreign invader not unlike the Martians in Mars Attacks! The third pirate is Forrest Gump-like in his naivete and confusion. The fourth is invisible, forgettable.
There is evidence of some larger design at work: Few films can do as much as Captain Phillips can with its variations of the phrase "everything's going to be okay." But Greengrass' reluctance to look too hard or too closely at the subtexts of his maritime Dog Day Afternoon eventually sinks it.