Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Billy Ray; A Captain's Duty by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty
Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
by Jon Cvack
This is the second time I’ve watched this film, and checking it out at home I can say this is very much a movie theater movie, though really only up until Philips is in the lifeboat. The wide, expansive ocean and massive barge, blasting those far reaching water streams just isn’t captured on a home television. When I finished this film in the theater I was blown away, mostly because I had no idea what the story involved. I knew Captain Phillips warded off some pirates, but knew nothing about the life boat, or extravagant involvement of the US Military.
Philips mentions the difficulty in working your way up the ladder. Similar to nearly every other industry, things just aren’t what they used to be. You have to know the right person or you have to have the proper and expensive education. Tom Hank’s role is one of perfection, where he’s able to demonstrate once again, that although he’s America’s most beloved actor he’s capable of playing a man that doesn’t command presence so much as earn it. Captain Phillips gets aboard his ship, checking to make sure that it’s prepared for an attack. We get to see the crude and simplistic ways they have devised to fight off pirates, including water canons across the ship's perimeter, and cage doors that fall upon the staircases, preventing access. Phillips’ faith in these devices assures us. They must do something if he’s so adamant about their functionality.
When I think of history’s great boat captains I imagine Sean Connery from The Hunt for Red October, Jurgen Prochnow from Das Boot, Jeff Bridges in White Squall, Robert Mitchum in The Enemy Below, Gene Hackman from Crimson Tide, and Charles Laughton from The Mutiny of the Bounty. Hanks earns his place alongside these men for standing out so distinctly. He is not a commanding or threatening presence like his predecessors. He’s an extremely smart, sensitive, and calm individual who’s able to get the job done. We see his mind working with such subtlety, as Hanks knows the pirates aren’t stupid. If he doesn’t come across as fully trusting while figuring out what he has to do, then the whole crew will die. Think about how difficult that is to accomplish as an actor. Greengrass could have had him act more aggressive, or if performed by someone else, they might have come across as more intimidating. Like all of his greatest work, Hanks embodies this role. He provides such subtle depth to the character that I fully believe he’s the person. I wondered how I would respond to the closing sequence the second time around, as he realizes that he’s safe and unable to hold back the tears. Often we cry with characters. Philips was trying to hold it back, and then got completely washed over with emotion. I’ve had this happen probably three times in my life - to be able to try to contain such unstoppable emotion isn’t easy. This second viewing, I was more impressed with Hank’s ability to pull it off more than getting whisked away with the emotion.
Of course, it was Barkhad Abdi’s role as leader Abduwali Muse, who’s caught between a life of piracy and going straight, that really steals the show. We get the impression that Muse was unable to escape the hardships in Somalia; that while the straight life was tempting he was never able to find the work he needed. While Greengrass doesn’t beat us over the head with the larger picture, he does make it clear that piracy did not just sporadically rise up in Somalia, but was rather a result of complex economic policies, where similar to gang organization, pirates offered an alternative of protection and stability, if little chance of escape once joined.
Abdi was chosen from over 700 auditions, attributing his success with a higher power. The role was so authentic that I actually was certain that Abduwali was played by a Native Somali. Muse shows such inner conflict, knowing that he can’t escape the choices he made, while forced to both remain a leader to his temperamental crew whose addiction to coca leaves and cigarettes makes it all the more challenging and also to remain alert to Phillip’s ruse. Phillips has genuine respect for the guy, seeing that a straight life could have served him well if given the opportunity. Throughout the story is the mildly condescending though engaging exchange between the two men as Muse takes pride in being the new Captain, with all of the responsibilities and leadership it demands. Phillips understands and respects this about him, seeing a good man beneath the harsh surface. Adbi makes us feel sympathetic, almost wanting to given him another chance at the straight life, believing that maybe America would and could serve him best.
It’s this form of American exceptionalism that the film pulls off with an amazing balance. There's been a recent rise in pro-Military badassness, as seen in Lone Survivor and Zero Dark Thirty, amongst others. While the 00s were riddled with anti-War texts (and one from Greengrass, in particular), the last five or so years has been a celebration - and rightfully so. Counter to Tom Hank’s more muted and calculated Phillips, the Navy Seal leader is an intimidating GI Joe gung ho bro, complete with thick muscles, southern accent, and hit-em-hard attitude. It’s more fun than ridiculous, but it also gets a little close to the stereotypes. Nevertheless, to think what lengths the military were willing to go for Phillips and his crew poses an interesting question. Did they want to protect the cargo, or the person? Because in the film, I’m fairly certain we hear off screen that they can’t let Phillips be taken to the mainland, suggesting that killing him with the pirates is preferable to letting the pirates get away with him. It’s pretty twisted. I understand it’d likely create an international scandal as an American Captain was getting tortured and held for ransom, with America not being able to do all that much, since as movies have taught us, we can’t negotiate with terrorists. The scandal it’d create is obvious and realistic. The movie suggests that this was the ultimatum, though. Either they get him off the boat or they all get killed. I would like to know who this was coming from - the White House, Pentagon, State Department? While I'm not sure of the facts around this issue, it seems like too heavy a matter to embellish.
The conclusion is a celebration of American Might, as we witness what happens when even the smallest of dangers tries to fuck with us. There was something surreal about seeing three battleships, a helicopter flying overhead, and the world’s most elite force getting ready to kill. It made feel glad and secure that I live in the USA; not out of some great American Exceptionalism, so much as feeling bad that others don’t have the same convenience. Imagine living in a place where the government had nothing to offer in that situation. At a very primal level, it feels good to have that type of protection, however rare it’s used; like when you’re a younger kid and have your older cousin who says he’ll help you out when in trouble. Captain Phillips was one of the amazing crop of 2013 films; what I consider to be one of the finest years in film ever.
BELOW: Acting is reacting, and knowing that this Corpsman was a non-actor makes Hanks' performance all the more incredible (though knowing this trivia now pulls me out)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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