Monday, October 14, 2013

Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi In A Pirate's Tale

Captain Phillips ~ Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
"No problems, Irish.  Everything will be all okay."
T he choice to go with an unknown group of Somali actors was not only the right choice, but also the best decision.  Although Tom Hanks ("Philadelphia," "Forrest Gump") is excellent as Richard Phillips, captain of the he Maersk Alabama, a commercial shipping vessel, but it is the actor Barkhad Abdi as the Somali pirate Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse who brings this story to life.  He is called Muse, pronounced Musi, and he is of unknown age.  Both of these actors are excellent in the portrayal of two men from different cultures trying to survive in today's rapidly changing world.  "Captain Phillips" is a two hour and fourteen minute intricate and mesmerizing thrill ride into the minds of third world pirates.
T here is no need to have the tag line cry out that this film is "based on true events."  This is a story that played out on the national news in April of 2009.  Although, there are probably some aspects of the story which may not have happened exactly as depicted, or were changed to make the story more entertaining, we must remember that director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy", "The Bourne Ultimatum," "The Green Zone"), and the actors Tom Hanks, and Barkhad Abdi, can only give us a small glimpse into the terror of the three days that Captain Richard Phillips was held as a hostage starting on April 8, 2009.  The screenplay is based on the book by Richard Phillips titled "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea."  Screenwriter Billy Ray ("The Hunger Games", "Flightplan"), adapts Richard's book for the big screen with all the fact and fiction that make seeing these types of films worthwhile.

Captain Phillips ~ Capture | A Constantly Racing Mind

I n 2009, the United States’ great economic recession had just reached its lowest point that March.  In 2009 Richard Phillips was 53 years-old, a husband to his wife, Andrea, father of two children, Mariah and Daniel, and was a graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.  Phillips is assigned to captain the American registered MV Maersk Alabama and is responsible for the lives of 20 men.  While checking his email, Richard Phillips double checks his assignment to the Alabama, he checks that he has his passport, and he packs a picture of his family.  On the way to the airport, he discusses his fears for his family in a world that is changing way too quickly.  He worries that his son needs to finds a direction in life, that if he doesn't do well in school, that he will miss job opportunities.  While in Somalia, Muse (Barkhad Abdi) awakes to the local warlord driving into his village, causing fear as he rallies the fishermen to get off their asses and go seize some ships and do some legit pirating.  The kicker here is that this is not a Disney film that these pirates are real and people will die.
“It is only business. Nobody will get hurt”
T he contrast that director Greengrass sets down immediately is that while Phillips has a job, and looks forward for his children's future, Muse and his village just want to survive the day.  What we see, is that the villagers must find a way to pay for the privilege to go pirating.  One of the many items offered up is Khat, a plant that is ancient and indigenous to the area.  The plant tends to act as a stimulant, causes a sense of euphoria and a loss of appetite.  Early on, we see that Muse has a rival in his village who is in charge of one of the two skiffs that hunt the waters for ships to loot.  Within the first 40 minutes of the film, we see that life in Somali is a dog-eat-dog world and only the desperate and ruthless survive.  Muse picks three of his fellow villagers to go in his skiff, Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), the young Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), and the angry and reckless Najee (Faysal Ahmed).  All four of these actors give excellent performances that seem to stem from a sense of brutal anger. 

Captain Phillips ~ Pirates | A Constantly Racing Mind

I mmediately upon boarding the Maersk Alabama in a port in Oman, Phillips takes note of security issues and has the first officer Shane Murphy (Michael Chernus), order the crew to fix them.  There are only 20 men crewing the 17000 + ton, football-field sized, cargo ship.  The film portrays Phillips as a firm but understanding leader as he drills the boat in security measures on apparently its first day at sea.  Timing of events in films has a tendency to either compress or stretch at the whim of the screenwriter.  The actual details in the film may also be small figments of the screenwriter's imagination; however, it seems that the big details are there. 
"We have come too far to turn back now."
F rom the moment the four men stepped onto the bridge, the level of tension that director Paul Greengrass has been building up slowly, now suddenly goes into overdrive.  The twenty minutes that the pirates are on the cargo ship only serve as a foreshadowing of the intensity that is to come later.  Phillips is kept as a hostage when the pirates escape in the small lifeboat, Greengrass ups the ante by focusing on the eyes of the characters.  By doing this, we see and feel the emotions that rage in these actors.  We can see Phillips thinking, planning, plotting, and we can see his fear.  In Abdi, we see through his eyes a sense of hope within hopelessness.  We see a young man trying to find a way for him and his men to escape their fates.  We see in Najee (Faysal Ahmed) a sense of madness, impatience, frustration, and hate.  Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), the youngest, and wounded during the Alabama's takeover, gives the impression of not only fear, and confusion.  Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) is the quietest of the four.
W hat stood out for me was the intensity given off by both Hanks and Abdi.  The interaction between the two is solid and real.  I have heard interviews with the actual Richard Phillips and Hanks seems to have nailed his New England accent.  The film has many subtitles as the four pirates speak in Somali for our benefit, while the Phillips character is clueless to what they are saying.  For me, the subtitles kept a sense of movie realism that we as the audience are used to, and find annoying without.  In typical Greengrass style, he films the story in a semi-documentary style with camera movement lending to the realism of the scene. 

Captain Phillips ~ Lifeboat | A Constantly Racing Mind

B arry Akroyd's cinematography is appropriate for this type of semi-documentary film.  Subtle movements, to define the style, yet nothing so vomit inducing.  Christopher Rouses editing paces the film perfectly, keeping us edging closer to the edge of our seats at each turn of events.  Moreover, Henry Jack Mans score is precise, stirs the suspense, and subliminally creates the sense of impending dread.  Paul Green grass pulls of a major coup in "Captain Phillips."  His masterminding and the direction he leads the crew and cast is dynamic, interesting, and almost perfect.  He brings out the emotional tiredness, the frustration and every now and then allows us to see a glimpse of hope.

"I know how to handle Americans."
A lthough the incidents leading to the end of the standoff are well known, Green grass brings the characters and story to life in an interesting and entertaining ways.  "Captain Phillips" is wonderful for what it is, an entertain movie, done well, and gives the audience a sense of national pride.  However, like Ben Affleck's "Argo," many will decry the film for its inaccuracies in characterization, changes in details and the rest of the realities that rear their ugly heads as thy do with all films adapted from novel.  But that doesn't matter, "Captain Phillips" is a must to go see.

Genre: Action, Biography, Drama, Thriller 
Year:  2013
Staring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
Director: Paul Greengrass
Producer(s): Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, Scott Rudin
Writer: Billy Ray, Richard Phillips, Stephan Tatty
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: 10/11/2013

All images are courtesy of Sony/Columbia pictures

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