In 2009, the world watched as an American cargo ship was seized by pirates off the coast of Africa. To save his crew, the captain offered himself up as a hostage and was subsequently cordoned off in a lifeboat pod with a posse of armed and anxious pirates looking for a multi-million dollar ransom. Eventually, the U.S. Navy and SEAL Team 6 got involved and brought about a resolution. It made for great drama then and would seem a natural fit for film. Yet, as harrowing as Captain Phillips is, it never quite gets below the surface of the ordeal.

All of this comes as a bit of a surprise because Phillips is directed by Paul Greengrass, who so adroitly chronicled the intrepid doings of the doomed 9/11 passengers in United 93. His poignant insight and meticulous care for every passenger’s individual story and plight rang through cleanly, and with a genuine earnestness. Here, however, that acumen feels lost or at best severely muted.

Captain Phillips begins with the captain (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) driving to the airport and bantering about how their children are growing up in a harsh world where being righteous and diligent isn’t enough anymore (perhaps an omen of what’s to come?). Shortly after, Phillips and his crew load food aid for Africa in the Arabian Peninsula and do a once-over of the ship, the Maersk Alabama. Phillips is working with a new crew that isn’t quite up to his standards, and neither is the ship, which ominously has unsecured “pirate gates.”

As a result of that shabbiness, once the ship has made it around the Horn of Africa Phillips insists on drills. But just as he sounds the alarm, two speeding skiffs packed with armed men — the Somali pirates — come at the enormous cargo carrier. The pirates fail in their first strike, but have a trailing mother ship where they refuel, and are back nipping at the Alabama the next day.

Three things seem to drive these criminals on the high seas: money, mind games, and stimulants. The pirates, who can speak English, impersonate the Somali Coast Guard, while Phillips, knowing they are listening in, pretends to call in an air strike and later lies about the operational condition of the ship. The Somalis, gaunt, angry, and hard to tell apart, all gnaw on a narcotic stimulant known as khat. When they’re offered $30,000 to leave the ship, they laugh and mention that their last take was $6 million, to which Phillips replies, “Then why are you doing this?” It’s a good question that unfortunately is never adequately addressed.

Phillips’s men also see the whole situation as a financial transaction. They don’t want to take on the task of repelling the pirates with the ship’s high-power water cannons because they think they’re not getting paid enough. Ultimately, they end up hiding in the hold while Phillips deals with the armed intruders.

Phillips and his crew employ some intriguing bits of chicanery to deal with the pirates, but eventually Phillips ends up in the survival capsule with the armed men and the U.S. Navy on their tail, and that’s where the film breaks down. It becomes an endless loop of the pirates debating whether to kill Phillips and the Navy eternally searching for the right seam to let loose its mighty hammer.

The film is based on Phillip’s memoir, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea. The book has recently come under fire by crew members who claim it’s a gross fictionalization of what really happened. So has the shipping company Phillips and his crew worked for, which allegedly sent the Alabama through pirate-infested waters as a shortcut in order to save on fuel costs.

The recent Danish film A Hijacking covered a similar real-life story with great success by burrowing into the lives and motivations of those in peril as well as their captors. Here, Greengrass wows with gorgeous oceanic vastness and crisp, taut editing, and Hanks conjures up a thespian tempest — but without anything solid to buoy them up, the film ends up foundering.

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