Friday, October 11, 2013

Shiver Me Timbers: A Contemporary Pirate Saga - Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips

When not commanding cargo ships on the salty high seas, Richard Phillips normally leads a rather ordinary, salt-of-the-earth life with his family at their 1840 farmhouse in Underhill, Vermont. He snowboards each winter and cruises nearby Lake Champlain in a powerboat during the warmer months. Now 58, Phillips also reads a lot. He’s a history buff who enjoys, among other subjects, books about pirates. That means buccaneers wielding swords in olden times, not the modern-day Somali teenagers with AK-47s who held him captive for five days in April 2009 until his rescue by the Navy’s fabled SEAL Team Six.

Captain Phillips is a new film about that ordeal by Paul Greengrass, the British director probably best known for action flicks like The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). A better comparison with the current release might be his Bloody Sunday (2002), about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, or United 93 (2006), a chronicle of what may have taken place aboard the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. The scrawny kids who try to hijack the unarmed Maersk Alabama, the freighter Phillips is navigating on the Indian Ocean, come from a typically impoverished coastal town in lawless Somalia, where vicious warlords order them to commit such crimes. Like most of their peers, they chew an amphetamine-like leaf called Khat. Pumped up for the job by this narcotic, the pirates race in small, swift skiffs toward the slower-moving ship that carries tons of food aid intended for several African countries.

But the cargo doesn’t really interest these wired interlopers (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali) led by 19-year-old Muse (Barkhad Abdi), pronounced Moosa. Their plan is to hold the Maersk for ransom or, failing that, kidnap the personnel on board. With the crew mostly locked in the engine room for safety, after a skirmish Phillips (Tom Hanks) becomes the only logical target. He’s strong-armed onto a small, enclosed lifeboat that heads for shore hundreds of miles away. It’s not yet safe for the USS Bainbridge, a Navy destroyer in pursuit, to intervene. The actual incident received so much media attention that few moviegoers are likely to be surprised about how the plot unfolds. But the jolt of adrenaline from watching this kinetic thriller – its script adapted by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, 2012) from the 2011 memoir that Phillips co-authored with Stephan Talty – is almost unavoidable.

Tom Hanks and Captain Phillips
We’re not supposed to feel particularly sorry for the bad guys, except that they too are victims. So their villainy is a yin-yang equation, despite only a modicum of political analysis provided by the filmmakers. Maybe this was the wrong venue for a consideration of Africa’s colonial history or the calamities facing a failed state in the age of terrorism. But Phillips has no sympathy for his captors and no Stockholm Syndrome. “I figured the first thing the pirates would do was take me out if they thought an attack was imminent,” he told me during a recent interview in Vermont. ”I really didn't see a good outcome.”

director Paul Greengrass 
While Greengrass brilliantly captures the lifeboat’s claustrophobia, he never lets up on creating intense action – surely his trademark – at every turn. Even when there's practically no room to turn. A whole lot of madness is going on in a small space, which must have been ridiculously difficult for Barry Ackroyd to shoot. The cinematographer, also a Brit, meets that challenge with the same sort of aplomb he brought to United 93 and The Hurt Locker (2008). The oh-so-tight editing is by Christopher Rouse, an American who has worked with Greengrass on four previous projects.

As Phillips, when not being beaten, kicked or chocked, Hanks is often forced to remain immobile by the jittery pirates. Yet his eyes are always calmly scrutinizing the surroundings in hope of an opportunity to resist. As his character finally does start to unravel, the actor delivers one of his most persuasive, shattering performances to date. When the genuine Richard Phillips first saw the film in June, his concern was that it would be hard for him to endure the scenes of abuse. Turns out that didn't pose a problem. “What actually happened to me was much worse,” he recalled. When I asked for an explanation, Phillips uttered just two words that were enough to convey a hellish scenario: “Mock executions.”

Hanks has said publicly that his four Somali-American costars, all refugees living in Minnesota, regularly expressed happy disbelief that they were in the company of Forrest Gump. For the desperate youngsters they play, life is like a box of Khat. When their stash runs out, they behave even more foolishly. But, onscreen, these sweet-natured nonprofessionals never seem like anything but dispossessed citizens of the Third World.

The genuine pirates, who spoke limited English, demanded that Phillips identify his clan. When he said “American,” they persisted: "No, what’s your tribe?” His explanation of an Irish heritage promoted Muse to muse: "Irish, you problem.” The captain’s reply: “You got that right.” Richard Phillips hails from Massachusetts. He’s been in Vermont for 23 years but still has a bit of a Boston accent, which Hanks overdoes. The actor travelled to Underhill three times in 2012 to meet with the man he impersonates. Though both are about the same age, they don’t resemble each other very much. “I told him he needs to gain some weight and get better-looking,” Phillips quipped.

the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips

The lovely and amazing Catherine Keener – who trekked to Vermont with Hanks on one of his visits –appears in a brief cameo at the beginning as the captain’s wife Andrea, an emergency room nurse. The two Phillips children, twentysomethings Daniel and Mariah, are not in the mix. Greengrass reportedly chose to avoid the standard scheme of cutting back and forth from protagonist in peril to anxious loved ones.

In Zero Dark Thirty, the members of SEAL Team Six come across as a playful bunch of fellows who turn deadly serious in order to compete their mission. The Captain Phillips warriors are a mysterious, anonymous bunch. Officers on the Bainbridge seem to be somewhat more sharply defined, though merely exemplifying a breed of no-nonsense types. That leaves Hanks and the Somalis with the task of crafting vivid personalities, which they do in an impressive manner.

Avast ye landlubbers. Many people are suggesting Forrest Gump and his band of brothers will emerge as a force to be reckoned with come Oscar time.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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