Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Despite the director Paul Greengrass (United 93) getting a little heat from Maersk Alabama's actual crew-members, the director, in telling of their harrowing piracy attack, is a masterful virtuoso. Just as in the previous "United 93" about the tragic flight during 9/11, we are a claustrophobic observer, a captive fly with no other recourse but to watch humans in peril.
Tom Hanks yet again plays a forthright, direct and compassionate character, this time in the man of Captain Phillips who is at the helm of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship transporting food and supplies around the Horn of Africa.
As portrayed by Hanks Phillips is a master of preemptive caution: he checks gauges, codes and locks, and goes through every inch of the ship. He doesn't suffer fools gladly as the saying goes and has no tolerance for goofs.
Phillips is professional to a fault. You would hardly think in watching him that anything bad is going to happen. A nervous and jumpy camera is the only clue. In a Greengrass film, this apprehensive but cool camera is as recognizable as Hitchcock.
Wait...there it is... a pixel on the radar that almost looks like a skull and crossbones and it's coming closer. The director captures the eerie unreality of the moment perfectly, an event much talked about perhaps but never thought of as something real, not to this ship, not to Captain Phillips. The moment when Tom Hanks looks through the binoculars and sees what's coming is a moment of acute panic and we all feel it. It recalls the best of William Friedkin and Spielberg but it is even more effective for evoking the insecurity that we may not, in actuality, be in a comfortable movie theater.
As if in a dream, we watch what unfolds, powerless to move, as two skiffs move closer and closer. Time seems to stand still sopped in a molasses of panic.
The ship is duly boarded after a near escape with a sense of danger, dread and depression that is all but unavoidable.
Abduwali Muse (played with startling authenticity by Barkhad Abdi) and three of his men pirate the ship, armed as they are with machine guns. The crew has scurried into the engine hold unseen.
At this point, many directors might steer this film into more macho waters with the salt of Bronson and Eastwood. But thankfully, this film is an existential analysis of captive and hijacker, of the pursuer and the pursued and how each of the men repeatedly change and transform their conditions. Enslaved by a warlord with little food and sustainability, left in an ocean depleted of fish by American companies, Muse has no choice but to act as a desperate, bullet-crazy pirate for money. Somalia has been raped. The entire film is gripping, but the parts that stand out above the rest, are the episodes when Phillips and Muse recognize their fragility within one another and, even their shared humanness and victimization.
The Somalian Muse, although by no means sympathetic is a pirate and try as we might---given his circumstances---it is difficult to harshly condemn him. Muse's mantra: "Do not worry Irish, it will be okay. Nothing to worry about."(repeated again by a Navy medic at the end of the film) is a zen koan, existential and surreal. Muse grows to respect Phillips and Phillips respects Muse. Shared violence and terminal struggle carries its own intimacy.
By the time the Navy ships gather, surrounding the bobbing orange lifeboat, in the style of a John Wayne moment of reckoning, we feel the pirates' pathetic condition and sense a nihilism.
The last scenes of "Captain Phillips" and Barkhad Abdi, shackled, sweating, wild-eyed and shaking, have much in common with a frightened deer. How much can we judge these pirates, without any sense of stability, economic or otherwise?
Captain Richard Phillips and his crew are outstanding heroes who went above the call and experienced what it is to be human in danger. But Abduwali Muse and others like him, are also in a fight for their lives with any sense of legacy or self respect, left bereft with no sense of attainment.
"Captain Phillips" is a sweeping yet introspective study. The most disturbing thing in this film, is the reality that there are no winners here and that all things are delivered by chance and one fateful spell of caprice.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org