Poffy The Cucumber

Captains Courageous… or not.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS details the real-life hijacking of the freighter ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates on April 8, 2009, and how its captain was taken hostage. And gaslights him into an undeserving hero.

Amongst his own officers, opinion was that the real Captain Richard Phillips was an arrogant, self-righteous prick. He was no selfless hero. So who does director Paul Greengrass cast as the cantankerous captain in this thriller? America’s sweetheart, Tom Hanks. Which tells us which way the film will skew. Because no matter what Phillips does, Hanks as Phillips will be regarded unconditionally as a good guy – even though the hijacking of his ship might have been avoided had Phillips swallowed his pride and followed anti-piracy protocols, taken the advice of superiors to be farther out to sea, and not made reckless mistakes during the hijack.

Captain Phillips did not follow orders, the ship was attacked, and he was responsible…
— Jimmy Sabga, crew, Maersk Alabama (in a lawsuit against Phillips for alleged incompetence and “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety.”)

Now, being attacked is surely not the victim’s fault, however there are precautions that can be taken to minimize the potential for attack. And from all accounts, what the 53-year-old Phillips did was the maritime equivalent of walking down a dark alley wearing nothing but Daisy Duke cutoffs and clear heels. He was asking for it.

Nonetheless, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is a gripping actioner, with compelling performances from every principal, and riveting sequences that ratchet the tension until the final moment of rescue. It’s a world and way of life that we rarely witness in cinema – The Way of the Merchant Mariner – and it’s intriguing viewing just for its immersion in maritime ethos. And there’s even some Shirtless Tom Hanks for the laydayz… It is only the casting of Mr. Hanks I have issue with, as an overarching misstep in the perception of this film’s titular character.

Also, how can a movie based on Phillips’s own 2010 book (A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, co-writer Stephan Talty) be as objective as it should be? Any wonder his crew is livid at how he’s portrayed, with screenwriter Billy Ray seemingly taking Phillips at his word on how blameless he is (and hot! – Shirtless Tom Hanks!).

Early scenes show Phillips arriving at the port of Salalah in Oman (just north of Yemen), taking command of the Maersk and its cargo of containers, and outlining his course through the Gulf of Aden, then down the East African coast, past Somalia to Mombasa, Kenya.

We see Phillips getting snippy with his crew, ending their coffee break early, ordering them to keep the “pirate cages” locked, and running them through drills they don’t want to do. We also see him read an email warning of pirate attacks, which he disregards, and minimizes the danger to his wife back home (Catherine Keener). It’s a screenplay ploy at creating a dramatic arc for Phillips to overcome, and it’s meant to offset Hanks’ inbuilt niceness, but it’s a nothing burger, as the pirates attack almost immediately, and these unsavory character traits of Phillips are quickly forgotten, as the whole crew rallies around their captain.

Before the attack, the Somali pirates are humanized, which is commendable, as we see they are plundering ships to pay off a tyrannical warlord. And these impoverished young lads are raised in an environment where hijacking ships IS their “job.” This is what the failed state of Somalia spawns – risking their lives going up against monolith American cargo ships, these boys are not terrorists laboring under an ideology; they’re simply trying to survive. (I’m pretty sure this point of view is not examined in Phillips’ ghost-written book.)

None of the four starring Somali actors have ever acted before and give inspired naturalistic performances. Their leader is Muse (Barkhad Abdi); there’s the Hothead (Faysal Ahmed), the Driver (Mahat M. Ali) and the Kid (Barkhad Abdirahman). (In reality, all the pirates were between 17 and 19, but besides The Kid, these actors look between 20 and 25.) The Kid forms a bond with Phillips for showing him kindness in tending his injured foot. Driver drives the lifeboat. And I’m surprised Hothead doesn’t bash Phillips more often, with the amount of fumes comin’ out the top of his head. And Barkhad Abdi just explodes outa the gate as “The Captain”…

One hell of an actor, Abdi oozes quiet, laconic menace, his glare showing little patience for these bristling boys around him; he wants to get this job done for his survival. When he takes the bridge of the Maersk, his first words to Hanks as Phillips are ad-lib: “Look at me. Look at me! I’M the captain now!” So when Hanks hedges his lines indecisively, it’s because he really was caught off-guard. And Abdi’s lines remain in the film because they are thunderheads, spoken with a conviction so menacing that Tom must’ve leaked a little.

Like a mouse attacking an elephant – and winning.

What is most alarming is the inadequacy of the freighter ships in defending themselves with such expensive cargo onboard. If we wonder how pirates in a small skiff can actually capture a gargantuan container ship with skyscraper sides, it becomes obvious when we see the piffling methods Phillips adopts to deter them: giant hoses lining the perimeter of the ship spraying powerful water jets outwards; zigzagging to create a massive wake to flounder the skiff; the ruse of making a public radio call to an imaginary warship (that the pirates can pick up), and answering himself in a disguised voice that the warship is on its way; pirate cages which are basic barred doors that can be easily opened by shooting the locks off; down to shooting puny flares at the skiff… While the pirates… have GUNS.

It is jaw-dropping that these open water American vessels are completely unarmed, even though they face the daily threat of pirates, yet every second douchebag in America has a firearm on his hips, to ward off their biggest threat of a Karen in the parking lot.

While Muse searches the ship for booty, the Maersk crew (very naturalistically portrayed by Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey as senior officers) manage to capture him, and Hothead grabs Phillips. The crew offer a trade – Muse for Phillips, even offering the pirates their lifeboat as escape.

Now this is where Reel Life gets tricky over Real Life. The film portrays Phillips volunteering to board the lifeboat, because “I gotta get them off this ship!” He shows Driver the controls, intending to exit as soon as Muse is aboard, but as soon as Muse enters the lifeboat, Hothead conks Phillips in the kidneys to kidnap him. The real-life crew of the Maersk are very touchy about this portrayal, citing that Phillips was always a hostage; that he never “voluntarily” entered the lifeboat, he was dragged in as a prisoner.

We vowed we were going to take it to our grave. We weren’t going to say anything, and then we hear this PR stuff coming out about him giving himself up, and he’s still hostage. The whole crew’s like, ‘What!?’ Everybody’s in shock.
— Mike Perry, Chief Engineer, Maersk Alabama, on CNN.

Lifeboat technology has come a long way since the rubber raft and people eating each other.

THE LIFEBOAT isn’t one of those inflatable rafts open to the elements — it’s a durable piece of hardware that looks like a cross between an orange boot and a spaceship; seating for 10, a bed, medical supplies, water, an engine and steering – it’s a regular little haven; makes abandoning ship feel almost luxurious. And the Maersk follows the pirates, mistreating Phillips all the way, in this little boot.

Then the SEALs arrive. When that giant warship rolls up on them with its claxons blaring, there is something magnificently American Big Dick about it. But wait—This is the USS Bainbridge “assigned to Counter-Piracy Task Force 151” – so this is the weapon! But it seems to be only a reactionary weapon, not a deterrent. Because pirates would obviously attack cargo ships nowhere near this warship. So what’s the point of it? We thank Almighty Industrial-Military Jesus for its presence, but it’s just another American Big Dick sailing around international waters, that the wanking U.S. Gubmint pretends is curbing piracy because they named it that.

Onboard the lifeboat, Phillips tries to reason with Muse: “There’s gotta be something more than being a fisherman and kidnapping people.” Comes the tragic reply: “Maybe in America, maybe in America…” No one from a First World country will feel the visceral desperation of having no other options in these underprivileged countries. Movie does a good job trying to make it as real as possible through Abdi’s heartbreaking performance. Phillips: “They’re not gonna let you get me back to Somalia – they would rather sink this boat.” And Muse replies, “I’ve come too far. I can’t go back.”

Muse would eventually be coaxed onto the warship for medical help (the Maersk crew had cut his hand badly in the captain exchange), and sharpshooters would take out the three other boys, in a tense, grand display of movie propaganda that keeps other countries fearing American military might. You think we’ll ever hear the real story from these covert ops thicknecks? Even local police falsify every report they write to make themselves look lawful; imagine how far into fantasy the top secret classified American Military reports go, in matters of murder in international waters, to make them look ethical and morally high ground and Geneva Convention.

After being held on the lifeboat almost five days, Phillips was rescued on April 12, 2009.

When Phillips is taken onboard the warship, Hanks gives an astounding rendition of trauma, as the ship’s medic tries to examine him, and he is completely checked out. He fades in and out, he cries, he stops crying; he can’t identify objects, can’t hear, he answers a random question, and his eyes check out again… Moments like these prove why Hanks is one of the greatest actors in the world. And we circle back around to the reason why they chose him for this strenuous lift in making a bad guy look like a good guy.

It may seem like I’m ragging on Phillips, but to make a hero comparison, Hanks himself would play another real life captain in 2016’s SULLY – the tale of Captain Chesley Sullenberger landing a crippled aircraft on the Hudson River – and no subversive reports would surface about Sullenberger, because he truly was the hero that Hanks portrayed onscreen. But with Phillips, it seems that for every person calling him a hero, there’s someone aching to “tell the truth” about why he’s not.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS draws us into its world completely, by shooting onboard the Maersk Alabama’s sister ship (called, strangely enough, the Alabama Maersk), so the authenticity is irreproachable – exact surroundings, no set dressing or CGI, everything tangibly real. Same goes for the warship – a real life American Big Dick, populated by real cavemen—I mean, crewmen. All followed by director Greengrass’s hand-held non-intrusive steadi-shaki-cams.

Final title cards tell us Abduwali Muse was convicted of piracy and is serving a 33-year sentence in Indiana. We can’t help but feel sorry for him, knowing his poverty-stricken, violence-bred background. And Captain Phillips went back to sea a year later. Was he a better man for the experience? His crew tell us no. But a book and a movie tell us he’s a hero. And who are we to question American Big Dick?


Director: Paul Greengrass.
Writers: Billy Ray, Richard Phillips, Stephan Talty.
Music: Henry Jackman.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, Max Martini, Omar Berdouni, Mohamed Ali, Issak Farah Samatar.
Word Count: 1,970      No. 1,614
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