All at Sea, All Is (Nearly) Lost
PC policepeople complained after the World Première Opening Night Gala six and nine o’clock showings of Captain Phillips at the New York Film Festival. No matter that the Paul Greengrass film gives consideration to the bad guys’ point of view, inevitable flak instanced the cool hero’s being family-man-middle-of-the-road white and the villains disorganized, vicious and black.
Interpretations may vary but facts remain. Billy Ray’s script is based on events from that white hero’s co-written A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. The socially squeamish might better have challenged Capitalism here and not racism. Yes, in his first demanding rôle in a while, Tom Hanks is his usual face of everyday American manhood, as William Holden was for an earlier generation, but yet his Richard Phillips does claim that his hijacked ship is carrying food and supplies to the Third World.
The point is made in the two-and-a-quarter hours, of desperate conditions in Somalia, forcing fisherman into piracy -- two hundred incidents off the Horn of Africa in 2009 alone -- parroting slogans of the West’s destroying their livelihood; but local warlords and bandits like Hufan (Issak Farah Samatar) and Garard have personal agendas and if necessary punish or sacrifice their illiterate, misinformed, naïve foot soldiers.
Handheld camerawork contributes to a you-are-there sense of events, when weapons were prohibited on commercial carriers and nations’ armed forces could not protect all shipping lanes. The captain and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) agree that they do not understand the new world, so difficult to raise a family in, even in Vermont. But this is their life, and, though his thirty years of work-related absences pose a hardship, they accept the situation as he goes to assume command of the Norfolk container freighter Maersk Alabama -- of the same U.S. sealand carrier which does not notice distressed Robert Redford in All Is Lost -- destined down the Indian Ocean coast of the Dark Continent.
On that exploited landmass, makeshift crews are recruited, armed and sent out in skiffs to capture passing vessels for cargo and ransom. In what becomes a hostage movie, with hasty plans gone out of control reminiscent of Dog Day Afternoon, four hungry-angry young men board Phillips’ bigger but defenseless ship, capturing him and other officers on the bridge and sending remaining crew into hiding in darkened belowdecks. Non-professional actors, the four bandits are terrific and terrifying in giving nothing away to veteran Hanks: angular Muse, teen Bilal, Anour Najee and Elmi (Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali).
Phillips remains calm for the longest time short of forever, reasoning with Muse and the volatile temperaments loosely under his control. The captain’s responsibility is first to his men, then to his ship and cargo, in hopes that all can be worked out bloodlessly if for a fee. This is sometimes echoed by Muse, but stakes escalate beyond them as the White House, military and media as well as the pirates’ mother ship press for nothing less than victory. (The original book gives more attention than the film to the Phillips family, following their husband and father’s five-day ordeal on cable television news.)
Muse serves bosses, which, Phillips wryly observes, we all do. Each side needing to save face, the former “cannot go back,” arbitrarily ups ransom to ten million dollars, assures the white that everything is going to be okay and, ironically innocent, dreams of going to New York to buy a flashy car.
Tension is built in rapid shifts back-and-forth between the two sides. There is humor of overkill incongruity, but comment as well, in American military technology and might around, above and under four skinny Africans – Tangos -- and their hostage sweating in a bobbing orange cylinder of a lifeboat. As in many films of this genre, fiction or fact, finesse gives way to firepower force, and though the real-life outcome is fixed in advance, the voyage is exhilarating.
(Released by Sony Pictures and rated “PG-14” by MPAA.)