Captain Phillips

In a country where there has been no government for over two decades, does the concept of rule of law mean anything?  A whole generation of people has grown up there knowing that if they wanted to survive, working for the local crime lord was the only option.  This is not some science fiction dystopia; this is modern day Somalia.

Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi, an amateur Somalian actor from Minneapolis, is not a bad man by nature, but he is going to survive if he can.  So he carries a gun and works for the warlord who pays him.  This includes engaging in piracy. 

It is possible for small launches with crews of four to take large cargo ships that operate in international waters and dock in foreign ports because those ships do not carry weaponry.  They have crews of about 20 since most onboard jobs are automated.  There are a few things they can do such as turning the fire hoses outward and maneuvering the ship evasively.  But those launches are fast and the pirates carry AK-47’s so the captain’s options are limited.

Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, played by Tom Hanks, is a buttoned down Yankee merchant mariner, devoted to routine, his family, and doing his duty.  Hanks plays him perfectly.  This is a caring and loving family man on shore who worries about how his kids will do in a future job market that he sees as much tougher than the one he faced as a youth.  On board his ship, however, he is a stickler for detail, and somewhat cold to his men.  When he finds the pirate cages that block the gangways between decks unlocked, he orders them locked even in port.  He’s taking no chances.

Muse (pronounced Musay, btw) is smart assertive and ambitious.  These launches operate out of a larger boat.  There are two launches on this particular boat and Muse doesn’t get along with the other launch captain.  During their first attempt on the Alabama, the other captain turns away when the cargo ship starts going faster, thus increasing the waves.  Muse burns out his motor.  Back on their boat that night, Muse calls the other launch captain a coward and demands that he give him his motor.  In the ensuing fight, Muse kills the other captain.  He also has his crew weld together a ladder that will get them up the towering sides of the Alabama.

I love stories about smart people figuring stuff out and here we get two.  The genius of Captain Phillips is that Paul Greengrass, the director and Billy Ray the screenwriter, make you care about both of these men.  This puts the story in the arena of tragedy because obviously they both can’t win.  And given the fact that Muse and his crew are soon up against the U.S. Navy, the odds aren’t with him.

Greengrass directs Captain Phillips in his usual semi-documentary style that he uses in all his films, and the technique is a long way from getting old.   There is a lot of handheld camera work and natural lighting.  This puts you in the action, as if it were shot from the point of view of one of the characters.  It also focuses more on the external, forcing the actors to show their emotions on their faces even more so than usual.  Hanks obviously is a master at this and his performance is award worthy.  But Barkhad Abdi, even though he hasn’t done any acting before, was very good at emoting as well.  Muse has a delicate balance to maintain.  He must act like a desperate mad dog in his negotiations with first the Alabama’s crew and then the Navy, while at the same time keeping his own crew under control, especially Najee, played by Faysal Ahmed who truly is a mad dog.    

The poignant this is that everybody is trying to get out of this situation without killing these kids and they are kids; not one of them is over twenty.  Obviously, Captain Phillips is trying to get them to surrender because he figures the odds are against his surviving any kind of raid, but even the commander of the U.S.S. Bainbridge, the Navy ship handling the situation wants to negotiate a surrender before the Seals get there and take over the operation.  What neither of them understands is the Somalis’ desperation.  They know they can’t go home without a valuable hostage.  The thirty thousand dollars in the Alabama’s safe won’t be enough.  Only millions in ransom money will satisfy their warlord.  They all agreed to the mission knowing it was success or death.

Captain Phillips is one of the best movies of the year so far.

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