By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
October 24th, 2013
Amidst the myriad of political, emotional and economic perplexities blisteringly explored in director Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips,” there is only one sure truth: Tom Hanks, who portrays the title character, does not rest on his laurels. Boy oh boy, this is relentlessly taut, seat-edged stuff, astutely conceived, directed and acted.
Unless the last dozen or so, hair-raising international incidents we Americans have been treated to in recent years have understandably dulled your memory, then you’ll remember the basic details of this true tale that took place 145 miles off the Somali coast. The containership Maersk Alabama, sailing under the U.S. flag, was boarded by Somali pirates, the first such commandeering of an American ship since the early 1800s.
On first blush, the occurrence seems crazy, and then continues to haunt our sensibilities throughout the powerfully depicted convulsions that follow. Here we are, a people who have written and essentially abided by an enlightened constitution, cultivated a society with an eye to the horizon, managed to feed a handsome portion of the Earth’s population and, just for good measure, traveled to the moon.
So pirates, initially conjuring visions of Robert Newton’s Long John Silver, gold tooth glittering and he regaling of his buccaneering exploits, seem so last millennium. But alas, matey, the sad fact is the dubious occupation has had a renaissance that is anything but romantic or glorious. Today’s pirates contemptibly occupy one of the globe’s many stages where the war between the haves and have-nots is waged.
Director Greengrass, working from a screenplay by Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games”), adapted from the book written by Phillips himself, employs a no-nonsense, traditional style, starting with parallels between the captain and his aggressors.
In the opening scene, the good captain, a middle class resident of Underhill, Vermont, is driven to Burlington airport by his wife. His destination: to command the Alabama across the Indian Ocean to Mombasa, Kenya. They discuss the kids, dreams, aspirations, etc., but never verbalize the ever-present fear that is about to be realized.
Scene #2: The epitome of poverty in a Somali village. The young men are all armed, ill-dressed and painfully undernourished. They chew on the amphetamine-like khat plant and, to disguise their misery, swaggeringly talk about the anticipated conquests that have become their raison d’etre. Then suddenly, the minions of a warlord swoop down on them. Enough talk, get out to sea and bring back the big boss his booty…or else.
We wring our hands. It’s not that filmmaker Greengrass is hoping to balance the scales, implore our sympathy or justify the revulsion that we know is about to follow. It’s simply a stark synopsis of the rotten inequities that plague the human condition. For all the global realities that the tale informs of, it is still not one world in which we live. There is much profit to be made from abject squalor’s cheap workforce.
Jumping ahead here to contemplate a particularly telling reality once the ship is boarded, an anguished Captain Phillips looks at Muse, the leader of the invading quartet, and opines that there must be ‘a better way, another way.’ Dropping his lethal demeanor for a rare second, Barkhad Abdi, who has deservedly engendered lots of Oscar buzz for his portrayal of the plunderer, utters, “Maybe in America….maybe in America.”
Such is the desperate, albeit despicable, rationale.
Then, delving into our own culture’s socioeconomic deficiencies, we are fed a full plate of angst when we learn that, because of this rule and that, the Maersk, like a bloated water buffalo surrounded by sharp-toothed jackals, is little equipped to defend itself against merciless attack. No guns…no nothing…only barely effectual fire hoses and a fear of death.
The tension nearly boils over, repetitively punctuated by pirates pressing their guns against the heads of Captain Phillips and other crew members whenever they feel the need for exclamation. It is horrifying. Thus — and it’s OK to tell you this since it’s a true story — we are like kids at a Saturday afternoon matinee cheering the arrival of the cavalry when the U.S.S. Bainbridge sidles up to the Maersk. The Navy Seals are at the ready if negotiations fail.
Still, even if you’ve boned up on the Wikipedia summary of the episode, to the film’s credit the suspense level keeps you on high alert. Superb camerawork, switching from assailants to hostages, and back and forth from the Maersk to the other vessels bobbing about at sea, keeps us awestruck, the excruciating helplessness accentuated at night.
Granted, going in we know that the real life skipper/author has taken issue with the adaptation, as have numerous crew members who have launched a $50 million suit against the Maersk. But then, in mild defense of Hollywoodization, we can only hope that the truth discovered in fiction makes up for the liberal embellishing of facts. What is certain, however, is that “Captain Phillips” navigates its audience through some treacherously exciting waters.
“Captain Phillips,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Paul Greengrass and stars Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman. Running time: 134 minutes