In “Captain Phillips,” director Paul Greengrass keeps relying on tight, jittery, confining close-ups of Tom Hanks as the title character. Between “Captain Phillips” and “Gravity,” with all its shots of Sandra Bullock’s space-helmeted face, this is the season of tight close-ups (though the ones in “Gravity” aren’t jittery). That Greengrass would follow this visual strategy makes perfect sense, since for much of the movie Phillips is literally confined. He’s being held captive by Somali pirates and kept in increasingly close quarters (his ship’s bridge, a lifeboat).
One of the ways Greengrass makes those close-ups feel all the more claustrophobic is how he starts out the movie, with highly different sequences of spaciousness. He goes from Hanks and Catherine Keener, as his wife, driving on the Interstate from their Vermont home; to the pirates gathered on the beach, preparing for their attack; and, most memorably, Phillips’s ship being loaded at the container port of Salalah, in Oman. The scene is a visual feast: the cranes, the containers, both of them highly colorful, the sense of general hubbub and directed activity. It’s like one of Edward Burtynsky’s industrial-scale photographs come to life.
The shots of Salalah also do something else. They remind us that even now, in a world made so cyber-familiar and globally accessible, the movies retain their power to take us to unfamiliar places and show us new things. Salalah, the Horn of Africa, even the inside of an enclosed lifeboat (the outside looks like a yellow, aquatic version of the Love Bug): They’re as exotic as Oz, as irresistible as Julia Roberts’s smile, and in their new-worlds-revealed way every bit as much a part of the movies’ appeal.