Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks tells the true harrowing tale of Capt. Richard Phillips, whose crew and ship, the Maersk Alabama, which was carrying commercial cargo and food aid while traveling around the Horn of Africa in its journey from Oman to Kenya was hijacked and Phillips taken hostage by a rag-tag group of Somali pirates.

At the film’s onset we are introduced to the lead characters in the drama and given a glimpse into their respective lives; back home in Vermont, we see Phillips leaving his family home and driving a minivan while discussing his kids future with his wife, in that brief snapshot we get a sense of his role as family man and the bond and love between he and his wife; cut to Muse, the leader or captain of the Somali pirates, whom by contrast is seen amidst the squalor of a poor fishing village in Somalia. Roused from bed at the arrival of the gang leaders for the Somali warlord to which they all answer to, the men are chastised for their lack of recent deliveries and threatened with dire consequences if a target isn’t acquired soon. Muse’s gaunt face and haunting eyes are a testament to the poverty and desperate circumstances in which he lives. As he makes his way to the shore and the skiffs which help him earn a livelihood, he is surrounded by men and teenage boys, each desperate to prove themselves and provide for their family. Despite the odds against them, as they depart in their battered skiffs and failing motors, their thin faces and wide-open eyes carry a look of life or death determination, as failure is not option.

At sea on the Alabama, Capt. Phillips reads an email with dire warnings of pirate activities and quickly begins security drills to prepare his crew for the eventuality of an attack. No sooner do the men begin preparing the fire hoses used to prevent pirate boarding, when our own hearts skip a beat as we see two ominous blips on the captain’s radar screen indicating their worst fears are about to realized. The tension builds on both sides of the David and Goliath battle as the ship and skiffs try to outrace each other, each pushed to the limits in their bids for escape and attack, respectively. Using his smarts and ingenuity Phillips manages to dissuade one of the skiffs from their mission, but desperation and need are a strong driving force and Muse has gone too far to turn back. Despite Phillips initial success at evading the enemy, a quiet night passes only to bring a new attack from the determined Muse. As the four man skiff finally draws beside the massive cargo ship, you hold your breath with each bump between the two vessels, and your breath (and an expletive) explodes out as that ladder finally hooks onto the railing and the inevitable occurs, the first pirate jumps on. It’s a mad dash for survival at that point as Phillips bravely tries to save his crew and ship; it becomes a battle of wills and intellect as the two captain’s go head-to-head for their men, their livelihood, and their very lives.

While Gravity has been getting all the box office glory lately, don’t let this great film pass you by without going to see it. Despite knowing the event’s outcome, once the action starts the movie keeps a steady rapid-fire pace that keeps you on the edge of your seat. When the story shifts from the cargo ship to a smaller lifeboat, you automatically think the action’s done for, but instead the tension builds as the clock counts down and the pirates realize the futility of their circumstances. Once you’re in the heart of the movie, the rare early glimpse of Muse becomes invaluable to better understanding his motivation. While not excusing his actions, in those few scenes, we are privy to the need and lack of hope that prompts Muse or thousands like him, to do what they do. One item of note which caught my attention was the glaring fact that throughout the movie the pirates are seen constantly chewing something, Khat (it’s referenced in the subtitles), a term which I had never heard before. Since it's never explained in the movie, I googled the term when I got home and learned that Khat is an amphetamine-like stimulant that is said to cause excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria; this knowledge goes a long way towards explaining the Somalis manic wide-eyed expressions and increasingly erratic behavior as they start running out of the stuff.

As for the acting, Hanks yet again offers a tour de force performance, which I have no doubt will garner him, at the bare minimum an Oscar nomination, if not an Oscar outright. Hanks’ counterpart in the movie, Barkhad Abdi who portrays Muse was absolutely phenomenal, especially when you take into account that he had NEVER acted before (so much for acting school). Abdi was born in Somalia but at the age of 14 immigrated to Minneapolis with his family; he learned about the role through a local TV ad announcing auditions.

Captain Phillips is an intense story about real life heroes, which are the best kind. This movie is a trip to the high seas which you won’t soon forget.