Saturday, July 19, 2014

Captain Phillips (2013)

Director: Paul Greenglass                                Writer: Billy Ray
Film Score: Henry Jackman                             Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Chris Mulkey and Barkhad Abdirahman

Based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was abducted by Samolian pirates in 2009, Captain Phillips has a lot of suspense, but not much drama. In retrospect is easy to see why such an intense film did not garner more Oscar nominations and received no wins. Without any real story, the film lacks the kind of drama that goes along with that. The best analogy is probably the first Hanks film that really lifted him out of the kind of juvenile roles he became known for: Apollo 13. In that film it might be expected that there would be a lack of drama because everyone knows how it turns out. But the through story of the three astronauts and Kathleen Quinlan as Hank’s wife was incredibly dramatic. In this film, however, the contrast is too stark between Hanks and the members of his crew, and the band of pirates headed by Barkhad Abdi. Though the film tries to generate a relationship of sorts between the kidnapped mariner and the African pirates, the culture and language gap is far too wide, and their respective goals are too far apart to approach anything like understanding between the two.

The film begins with Tom Hanks at home with his wife, Catherine Keener. As he drives to the airport to begin his next voyage, they talk about their son and the inherent danger involved in his business. Yet he doesn’t tell her about an email he received that warns about pirates in the Indian Ocean. Checking out his container ship in Oman he takes extra precautions to make sure the ship is secure according to regulations. As they set out on their journey to Mombasa he is obviously nervous about the reports. His second in command, Michael Chernus, is solid in his support of the captain. Meanwhile, in Somalia, the warlords come into the village where Barkhad Abdi lives demanding that they capture another ship. Two groups are selected to go, one led by Abdi and another by Mohamed Ali. One day Hanks, still a bit on edge, orders a full attack drill. As they are a civilian ship, they can’t carry weapons. Instead they affix fire hoses all around the ship to hopefully swamp the smaller boats carrying the pirates. After the drill is over, however, something shows up on the radar. Both skiffs are after the ship. The U.S. military is too far away to help, so Hanks fakes a call that the pirates hear, which sends Ali back. But Abdi forges ahead, only stopping when his motor dies. While the crew is relieved that they have escaped, Hanks knows that they’ll be back. And they do return, this time with dire consequences.

The film addresses a lot of issues obliquely, and part of the power of the film lies in the fact that there seems to be no clear answers for any of these problems. The pirates who raid the ships get to keep none of the money, yet they continue to do it in order to avoid being killed by the warlords. They’re not driven by greed and so the usual enticements don’t work on them. The lack of even the most rudimentary weaponry for protection on the ships leaves them incredibly vulnerable, and yet if they do carry weapons they can be considered a war ship. Finally, it takes so much time for the U.S. military in the area to respond that it seems maddeningly ineffective protection for people so vulnerable. In one scene, reminiscent of one from Ridley Scott’s Alien, the workers on Hanks’ ship revolt and refuse to fight against the pirates because they’re civilians. It takes all of Hanks’ tact to point out to them that they have no choice because no one is coming to their rescue. Chris Mulkey leads the rank and file who run the engine room and does a terrific job. The four main Somali pirates are all very convincing. They speak some English and so they have the advantage over Hanks and his crew in terms of communication.

Director Paul Greenglass is best known for the second and third installments of the Bourne franchise with Matt Damon. But his best film is probably United 93, about the passengers during 9/11 who took over the plane and crashed it rather than let the terrorists hit their target. This film earned six Oscar nominations including best film, supporting actor for Abdi, and the screenplay by Billy Ray, but not for Hanks. And yet his brief scene at the end of the film is one of the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, any more than it’s a spoiler to say that the Apollo 13 crew gets back safely. But we’ve all seen dozens of films that end with the protagonist sitting in the back of an ambulance, cops milling around, smoke in the background, and a sigh of relief by everyone that that’s over. But I’ve never seen a more realistic look at the kind of shock that must accompany a harrowing event like a kidnapping. Hanks is stupendous, but then so are the Navy personnel--actual Navy personnel Danielle Albert and Nathan Cobler--who are caring for him. It feels right. It feels true. It feels like something I’d never want to have to go through. Captain Phillips is an incredibly intense film. Not a lot of story and so not a lot of drama, but an incredibly realistic look at horrible problems for so many people that we don’t even think about.

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