starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi
screenplay by Billy Ray
directed by Paul Greengrass
Based upon the book, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea (2010), a memoir by Captain Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty, Captain Pillips tells the story of a real incident in 2009 in which an American cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. Merchant marine captain Richard Phillips sails his vessel through known dangerous waters en route to Mombasa, Kenya. Along the way, in international waters, his ship is assaulted by gun carrying Somalis patrolling the sea in outboard dinghies. After successfully evading their first attempt the pirates return the next day and succeed in boarding the vessel. The ship’s captain and crew cleverly try everything they can to deter and retard the boarders, but ultimately they take the captain hostage and try to escape in one of the ship’s lifeboats. The U.S. Navy eventually arrives and Navy SEAL sharpshooters kill all but one of the pirates in a tense, meticulously executed counter terrorism operation. The lone surviving gunman is currently serving a 33-year sentence in a U.S. federal penitentiary for piracy.
During the movie - which I once again watched at my favorite cinema, Milano, in the red light Kabukicho neighborhood of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward - I wondered “If the Americans take this long to stalk and kill four terrorists in a lifeboat how can they possibly be competent enough to wage wars around the globe? What kind of superpower is this?” I thought they should just take a heavy lift helicopter and literally pick up the lifeboat from the water with all its occupants and then plunk it down on the deck of a warship in the midst of a company of armed marines. Oh, well, I guess the logistics of military operations as well as the finesse of international politics is beyond my ken.
Of course I remember when all this was news. It wasn’t that long ago, less than four years. The film is exciting and tense. Much of it was filmed in an actual lifeboat and on board actual ships at sea and there is a certain sunny, breezy, fresh air quality to it. As a vehicle of information, however, it is sadly lacking. In typical Hollywood good guy-bad guy dualism the Somalis are villains. What the film does not tell us is the why Somali fishermen feel forced to piracy in the first place. Nothing is explained about the rape of Somalia by the international world because that would make America and other countries look like accomplices - which they are, of course.
Tom Hanks gives another superlative performance. Wow, he’s good!
My favorite line from the film is, “Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.” It’s never alright, of course. Once the pirates board the big cargo ship they can’t turn back. The whole ransom plan goes to hell in a hand basket faster than you can say “Mogadishu,” but the pirates can’t properly appraise their risks against their fantasy jackpot.
The film is in English and Somali, with English subtitles. The Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi lives in Minneapolis of all places. Captain Phillips is his film debut and he delivers a truly great performance beside Tom Hanks. He looks like he escaped from an AIDS clinic or a refugee camp. I mean he looks authentic.
I was very interested to see the inside of a freight ship as a work and living environment: crew cabins; corridors; engine room; mess; paperwork; chain of command. I thought the bridge in the movie sounded like a quiet workspace. I wonder what the reality is? How does one become a merchant ship captain? A train locomotive engineer? A tractor trailer driver? A fireman? I guess high school guidance counselors have the answers, but I never paid much attention to them.