Nov 19, 2013

Captain Phillips

There are two fabulous scenes in this movie by Paul Greengrass. When the four skinny Somali pirates, armed to the teeth in a small skiff, come on board the enormous Maersk Alabama cargo ship, and there is nothing that Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) can do about it; and the last five minutes of the film, for which Hanks may very well collect an Oscar nomination for best actor this year.
Greengrass unleashes chaos and urgency with balletic energy, helped by the jerky, yet amazingly precise camerawork of the great Barry Ackroyd. He stages the action in a "you are there" style, and while choppy, the action is always clear, which is no mean feat. After two hours of relentless quick cuts, however, it gets a bit tiresome.
Even with the tension and the mayhem, something at the center of the movie feels weak. Perhaps Captain Phillips is not such an interesting character. If, as some of the actual Alabama crew members have recently complained, the real captain was more reckless and less heroic, this could have provided a more interesting tete a tete between him and his kidnappers; an extra layer of complexity. This captain never lets the sailors' coffee break go over their allotted 15 minutes; that's as mean as he gets. Hanks, although a solid actor (with an unfortunate New England accent, alas), is incapable of not being nice. And this is a little boring. Wouldn't it be great to see him as a villain for a change? Or at least a morally ambiguous character? Billy Ray's screenplay broadly telegraphs the issues.
Muse, the main Somali pirate, an Oscar worthy performance by first time actor Barkhad Abdi, is much more interesting than him. He is more likable than Phillips, with his sly braggadocio, puffed up by the strength conferred to him by firepower. Muse is smart, reckless and desperate for money. He has done it successfully before and he thinks he can swagger himself out of the situation with a combination of reassurance and grandstanding, and guns leading the way. He even tries to use the same patronizing tone with Phillips that the American uses with him. He is counterintuitively adorable.
Now, as every kindergartner in America now knows, had the Alabama carried weapons, the four Somali punks would be reduced to dust in a hail of bullets. But apparently, international shipping routes are not red states, and the Alabama wasn't packing heat at sea. Hence the disproportionate, absurdly surreal advantage that four skeletal, raggedy Somalis had against at least two dozen burly, yet unarmed, first world sailors on a humongous ship.
What also makes Greengrass a good action director is that he is very good with actors. He has a fine eye for casting authentic looking people, and they are all well directed. The actors who play the US Navy personnel are extremely believable in their roles, with their flat affect and naturalness when spewing complicated jargon. Greengrass gets right the arrogant, colloquial tone of Americans in charge. From Phillips to any American character who speaks to the kidnappers, the tone is one of casual, patronizing, incredulous superiority, and it is pitch perfect.
Who are the pirates? Extortionists. As Muse reassures Captain Phillips in a line that elicits laughter, there is no need to fear; they are not Al Qaeda. That is, they are not a bunch of irrational haters. According to Muse, this is simply about money. But it is also about powerlessness and what schemes the powerless come up with to try to level the playing field. Muse explains that big ships from rich countries fish and deplete Somali waters, so all he is doing is collecting taxes. At one point, he says he loves America, like many who envy and resent it that are also mesmerized by all it promises. He's a businessman! But he is no Robin Hood. He's just a hood that works for an overlord who exploits him. This is how we can sympathize with him but not with his methods. We may feel sorry for his desperate poverty and his naiveté, but we are not cheering for piracy and extortion, no matter how lopsided the fight.
American might comes bearing down in full force, in this case, not to establish justice, but to retrieve its citizens and possessions in harm's way, reinforcing the abysmal power imbalance between the haves and the have nots. It is almost funny to see the orange lifeboat where the captain is trapped with the kidnappers, which looks like something out of Finding Nemo, at war and "negotiation" with the all mighty American armament.
Compared to other movies about Americans at conflict with the world, the villains here are presented in a more human scale, and so is the hero. In the end, he survives the ordeal, but he is utterly bereft of the self-possession with which he commanded that ship in the beginning. Tom Hanks, who in the eyes of Hollywood is the ideal American, like Jimmy Stewart was in the 1940's, is left rattled, shocked and almost unable to find himself. The world has changed. We may have the might; but little beleaguered countries have the impotence and the rage, which, as they have been showing us for years now, are not a joke and are not easily trampled. They can still make us tremble.

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