March 6th, 2014

"Captain Phillips"

Having missed “Captain Phillips” when it was in first-run, we caught up with it at the budget theater.

This story of the attempted hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama, and kidnapping of her captain, Richard Phillips, is based on Phillip’s book about the incident, A Captain’s Duty, and struck us as being totally believable. Since the movie was nominated for several Oscars, some of the crew have reported said they thought that Phillips was not as heroic as portrayed. Frankly, I thought that most of the character’s accomplishments (as portrayed by Tom Hanks) consisted of keeping a relatively level head and not freaking out until it was safe to do so—which, in real life, is in fact what most people who end up being called “heroes” have done--.

The film is actually relatively sympathetic to the plight of the Somali pirates, who are shown as the low men on the totem pole of crime bosses and warlords. These are not the kind of jolly pirates we would see in a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. When the boats go out to hunt, the boat leaders pick out a handful of men from dozens of volunteers vying for a spot, like a “cattle call” for migrant workers. Competition between boats is fierce; when engine failure aborts Muse’s (Barkhad Abdi) first attack on the Maersk Alabama, back aboard the “mother ship”, he clubs down a rival team leader with a wrench and takes his outboard motor. Nor is this an organization where the rank and file get a generous share: when Muse brags to Phillips that last year, he captured a Greek ship that was ransomed for six million dollars, Phillips looks the pirate up and down—ragged and skeletally thin—and replies, “Oh, yeah, so what are you doing here?”—knowing that even a small fraction of that much money would have set the man up for life in Somalia.

Still, one has to have a grudging admiration for their spirit. It takes bold and desperate men to hunt the open ocean in their ramshackle open boats, and then to try to board a vessel thousands of times the size of their boat, probably moving at its top speed, when a missed jump means almost certain death.

The crew’s resistance foils the attempt to seize the ship, but the pirates escape in a lifeboat, taking Phillips as hostage. What follows is days of tension as the lifeboat wallows toward the Somali coast, shadowed by American warships. Tempers flare in the heat as the pirates grow more argumentative and fearful, and run low on khat, their stimulant of choice, and Phillips has to avoid setting off a lethal rage.

The movie was genuinely suspenseful, and, although some events were speeded up or modified for dramatic purposes, seemed real. Certainly, Hanks as Philips did a truly fine acting job showing us very genuine reactions to a horribly stressful situation.

Recommended for fans of real-life drama. Although there is remarkably little foul language and actual violence, the intensity of the situation makes it not appropriate for children.

Notes: Some of the crew’s criticism of Phillips is based on his refusal to take the ship further out into the Indian Ocean, away from the Somali coast. Phillips’ reply was that 600 miles or 1200 miles would make no difference, with the mother ship support, the pirates could be anywhere. Subsequent events may have proven him right, since the Maersk Alabama was unsuccessful attacked by pirates a second time in 2009, in 2010, and twice in 2011. Presumably her new commanders would have taken all reasonable steps to avoid attack.

At the time of this writing, investigation is continuing into the deaths of two members of the Alabama’s private security detail, former Navy SEALs found dead in their cabin. The Maersk Alabama may be gaining a reputation as an unlucky ship--.

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