Friday, February 7, 2014
The Captain and Terrorism
Paul Greengrass has become adept at turning true-life situations into thrilling action films similar to the Bourne films he made (Supremacy and Ultimatum). Captain Phillips turns the Somali pirate attack on the ship Maersk Alabama into a strong suspense film, one of those where even though we should know how it ends, we still are taken into the story and left to wonder how it will all turn out.
After briefly introducing both Captain Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his soon-to-be nemesis Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and their respective home lives in Vermont and Somalia respectively, we get to the gist of the story. Captain Phillips heads the crew of the Alabama from Salah, Oman, to Mombasa, Kenya, which means going through international waters close to Somalia's shores. The Captain sails on with a somewhat wary eye but confident that any potential attack can be repelled by the crew. Muse, on the other hand, sees the Alabama as a lofty prize, one that will gain them millions of dollars. A first attempt at an attack is pushed back through the Captain's quick thinking (he pretends to be the U.S. Navy to the listening Somali pirates, convincing and confusing most of them), but Muse is not to be deterred. He is not convinced, and despite the high risk he tries again the next day. Though the ship and their now-interested crew do the best, Muse and his three fellow pirates manage to seize the ship from the unarmed crew. The Alabama crew manages to take cover as the Captain ordered, but the pirates now have the bridge. As Muse tells Phillips, "I'm the Captain now".
Phillips offers them the $30,000 the ship carries, but Muse and his crew are convinced that taking the whole ship will offer rich rewards for any ransom. The Alabama command attempt to convince the pirates that the crew has scattered and the ship is disabled, but Muse again is not fooled. He insists on searching the whole ship, and while the Alabama crew is able to injure Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), the youngest of the pirates, and take Muse himself hostage, the pirates still have an ace up their sleeve. With the promise of exchanges, the pirates take the Alabama lifeboat, and Captain Phillips himself.
Now with the pirates desperate to race back to Somalia and the hope of using Phillips for ransom, the U.S. Navy, which has been alerted to the piracy, now rush to the Alabama (which is in pursuit of the lifeboat), the Captain has to keep his wits as the pirates attempt to keep ahead of the Alabama, the Navy (and the incoming Navy SEALs) and from falling apart themselves. Muse is the one who keeps his head, and as Captain he is the one in charge of his warring men. Captain Phillips does his best to help the Navy, even trying to make a daring escape himself. In the end though, while the Captain himself is recaptured, three pirates are dealt with swiftly, with Muse having been captured when he is told his elders are onboard to get the ransom money.
Again, the resolution to the crisis is not a mystery (Captain Phillips lived to tell the tale, since his memoir A Captain's Duty the film is based on). However, Greengrass does what he does best: move the story along with a 'you-are-there' style that keeps things flowing steadily and surely. We are never allowed to leave the situation with any dream or fantasy or flashback sequence. Instead, Captain Phillips never lets up on the tension as it ebbs and flows (the first hijacking fails, the crew strikes back, will the Captain make it when he makes a break for it). We are never allowed a moment of levity, a moment where some wisecrack gets in the way. The best description for Captain Phillips is professional.
This extends to the portrayal of the Navy and the SEALs. We get through Billy Ray's screenplay a thoroughly professional way of the military, with the jargon that is never explained to us (which adds to that 'you-are-there' feel). There is no heroics, no chest-pumping. Instead, the behavior of the Navy (which wants to resolve the situation as peacefully as possible) to the SEALs (which is there for one thing: to save Captain Phillips and bring justice to the pirates/pirates to justice). In short, Captain Phillips keeps the tension and the reality of the situation moving steadily and surely, which pushes the film to being better and better.
I confess never having been the biggest Tom Hanks fan in the world. However, credit must be given where it is due, and Hanks makes Phillips into that Everyman Hanks does so well. He is not a hero, but a man who wants to survive and wants to do what's best for his crew. He does what he can to keep his men and himself safe. Hanks' final moments, as he comes out of his ordeal and the shock of it all starts subsiding to where he finally begins to collapse is such a strong, brilliant performance. I don't think Hanks is a lousy actor...far from it. Maybe I just haven't forgiven him for Turner & Hooch. What is really incredible is that Abdi, a nonprofessional who himself left Somalia, is able to hold his own against the titan that is Tom Hanks as Muse, who is not evil but who instead is trying to survive himself. He doesn't give long speeches about the 'rightness' of his actions, and we can see that he harbors no ill will towards "Irish" (what he calls Phillips). Muse is a man of intelligence (he first attempts to fool the Alabama by claiming to be the Somali Coast Guard, a patent lie that is obvious from the get-go), but when he is taken prisoner aboard the Navy ship, Muse looks shell-shocked, as if he cannot believe he has survived as well.
There really is little to fault in Captain Phillips, apart from not really knowing much of the pirates save for Bilal, who is injured in the hijacking and who is the 'youth' led astray. Still, on the whole Captain Phillips is a thrilling, tense film that moves quickly for its running time, with two great performances as its anchor.