Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips, the new film from director Paul Greengrass, is the kind of film that I just know I will watch again and again when it is on TV. Today I saw the film on the ultimate big screen – an IMAX.

For a film that was based on a real-life story that took place in 2009 and attracted world-wide attention, it was certainly one helluva a pressure-packed, suspenseful, thrill ride.

Starring Tom Hanks, our modern-day Jimmy Stewart, as Captain Richard Phillips who was aboard the Maersk Alabama as it steamed through the Somalian Straits off the coast of African. Phillips had flown in from Burlington, VT, to pick up the ship in Oman and take it out of port passing through the Gulf of Aden, rounding the Horn of Africa, heading for Mombasa, Kenya.

The ship was not carrying cars, or consumer electronics, or boxes of treasure. Among other things of its cargo which was stuffed into more than 1100 railroad box car sized containers, were relief items like food stuffs, medicines, and clothing.

So as the ship steamed on its course, Captain Phillips was reading some advisories about the rapidly increasing number of pirate attacks in these very waters. So Phillips ordered a walk through of what their standard course of action would be if they came under attack. The ship carried no armaments or weapons, so they were limited to evasive tactics and water hoses to defend themselves. If boarded, ultimately they could ‘go black’ or as they put it shut down, go dead, in the water, and wait for help.

The advisories called for maritime vessels to stay at least 600 miles off the Somalian coast

When two skiffs showed up on the radar, the Maersk Alabama was only about 240 miles off Somalia. Phillips swung into action. First he tried a 5 degree turn to starboard to see if the approaching vessels made a similar turn. Which they did.

Phillips then contacted the Maritime support agency to report that the Alabama would soon be under attack. When they suggested that the approaching boats could be fishermen, Phillips said that these boatmen were not there to fish.

Despite the evasive tactics, the rapid course changes to roil up the sea, and the fire hoses – the Alabama was boarded by 4 Somalian gunmen.

These men did not board the ship, and make their way to the bridge to announce, Hi – we’re the Millers. What’s for dinner? It was far more ominous and onerous than that. The group leader, a young man called Muse, spoke English, and said to Captain Phillips – Look at me, look at me! I am the Captain now.

He said they were not Al Quaeda, and it was just business. The ship, its crew, and its cargo would have to be ransomed.

There’s your set up.

What follows is true edge-of-your-seat, white-knuckle time. Phillips and Muse play a cat and mouse game of where is the crew, where is the money, fix the ship, and so forth. It is incredibly suspenseful. Even with the knowledge that military intervention did arrive, and Phillips was rescued, none of that factors into your thoughts as they story plays out before your eyes.

Hanks gives his best performance in years, and the you will be surprised to know that the four Somalian pirates, were actually Somalian Americans and were chosen from a group of 700 applicants in an open casting call in a Minneapolis, MN suburb.

As Muse, we have Barkhad Abdi. He had no previous acting experience. As an added twist, director Greengrass, kept the Somalians away from the rest of the cast. In fact, it wasn’t until they forced their way on to the Captain’s bridge, that Hanks actually saw these men for the first time.

Muse was a thin man and was often referenced as ‘rat’ or skinny’ What he lacked in size, he more than made up for in courage. This gave him a terrific screen presence.

Greengrass knows how to put a thriller together, and this work is up to the standards he set in Bourne 2 and Bourne 3. Yes, Greengrass still likes to work with multiple hand-held cameras, so we do get that sometimes disorienting jittery effect. But when you think of the fact that the footage from three separate cameras has to be edited into a coherent whole, you become all the more appreciative.

As Captain Frank Castellano, Commander of the US Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge, we have Yul Vazquez, who had a recurring role as Victor Lazaro in Magic City earlier this year. As a younger actor, Vazquez appeared in at least three Seinfeld episodes – We’re taking the armoire, and that’s it!

Before I wrap the review up, I’d like to comment about the way the screenplay by Billy Ray humanized these Somalian pirates. It would be a standard Hollywood ploy to make them simply evil. The sooner they get taken out the better.

But Ray’s script gives them qualities that make you see them from another angle. Yes they are pirates, but they are also humans with fears, and facing circumstances so vastly different from our own. Muse mentions the depleted seas as being over-fished by commercial foreign fishing companies. Yes, they come from grinding poverty. And yes the come from world’s least stabilized country.

This is not to say that Ray’s script makes them likable, but it does humanize them to a degree.

I think this was a very good week for movies. Two days ago I saw Gravity, and today Captain Phillips. I believe with certainty, that both of these will be among the finalists for the Oscar for Best Picture. I also believe we will see Hanks nominated for Best Actor as well.

It wasn’t just that he played a heroic ship’s captain. He was a rock through 7/8ths of the film. Phillips does come apart at the end, and Hanks is terrific in putting this on-screen for us. For sure, it was a hellish time for Phillips, both the real one and the actor who needed to reach deep inside of him and pull up what the real man had experienced, and then translate that for us.

My rating is four-point five, and I’m calling it a must-see. I saw the IMAX presentation which gave us a true feeling of the size of the Maersk Alabama, but also made the sizes seem so plausible. The immensity of the sea, and then, and so strikingly  – the massive presence and power of the US Navy against what was essentially a life boat.


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