Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rag-Tag Pirates Catch a Really Big Fish


“Captain Phillips” One Terrific Movie

By Skip Sheffield

“Captain Phillips” is a terrific movie in the most terrifying sense of the word. It is directed by white-knuckle specialist Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) and the script is based on a book written by the actual Capt. Phillips.
Tom Hanks gives the performance of his career as the title character, who was kidnapped and held for ransom in 2009 by four Somali pirates in the first high-jacking of a U.S.-flagged ship in 200 years.
The Maersk MV Alabama was on a routine 10-day mission from Port Oman around the Horn of Africa through the Somali Basin to Mombasa, Kenya. Somewhere around 280 miles from the Somali port city of Eyl, the huge Alabama was attacked on April 8, 2009 by a small, outboard-powered wooden boat manned by four raggedy young pirates armed with automatic rifles.
Greengrass starts the story on a routine and low key with Phillips (Hanks) rising early and leaving his Vermont home with wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) for Boston’s Logan Airport.
We see Phillips meeting his 20-man crew and mapping their journey, with an acknowledgment that they would be traveling through dangerous, possibly pirate-infested waters. Phillips has the crew perform security drills.
In separate scenes we see the desperate Somali pirate crew being chosen by war lords. Only the most menacing, fearless and clever sailors need apply.
We see the pirates’ modus operandi: a “mother ship;” formerly a fishing trawler, and two smaller vessels not much larger than rowboats to do the dirty work.
A young man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi), called by his nickname “Skinny,” emerges as the leader. What Skinny lacks in physical size he makes up with courage and cunning. He is also the only pirate who speaks and understands English
Greengrass recruited actual Somali refugees, now U.S. citizens, as the pirates. None of the Somali had previous acting experience, yet they took to their roles naturally; especially Barkhad Abdi as Muse, who is truly a skinny but scary adversary.
The first evidence of a possible attack is green blips on a radar screen, indicating the approaching small boats. Tension builds as the blips get closer and closer and the boats come into sight.
As someone who has traveled by boat in the Caribbean, I found it curious the MV Alabama had no weapons of self defense other than flares and water cannon. Perhaps that has changed by now.
“Captain Phillips” was produced with full cooperation of the Maersk Line and the U.S. Navy, so the look is absolutely authentic.
The tension ratchets higher during the actual attack and boarding of the now-helpless Alabama. The closest U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, was still 800 miles away.
With the crew cowering in darkness behind locked gates in the Alabama’s hold, Capt. Phillips faced the pirates and engaged in a game of cat and mouse, desperately stalling for time. Phillips tried to buy off the pirates with $30,000 in the ship’s safe. The pirates wanted millions and they were prepared to die for it.
The war of nerves becomes almost unbearable when Phillips offers himself as hostage, and gets into the Alabama’s motorized lifeboat with the pirates, as the U.S. Navy and their elite SEALs arrive.
Other than a somewhat unconvincing New England accent, Hanks’ performance is flawless and explosive in a literal sense. It is a measure of the director and actor’s skill and artistry than we remain on the edge of the seat, despite the well-known outcome.
Already there are naysayers who claim Phillips was not the hero he is portrayed as in this story, and that his reckless course encouraged the high-jacking. In fact there is a lawsuit stating as such.
This is a movie after all, and there is such a thing as artistic license. If Tom Hanks is not nominated for an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor, there is something wrong with the system.

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