Friday, November 01, 2013

Captain Phillips

In April 2009 the container ship Maersk Alabama was attacked during its voyage from Oman to Mombasa.  Four teenage Somalians boarded the ship and after a bungled exchange between the pirates and the crew, who had captured one of the pirates during a fight, the pirates escaped in the ships lifeboat with the ship's Captain - Richard Phillips. The following hunt for the pirates involved the USS Bainbridge, Halyburton and Boxer together with a unit of US Navy SEALs and resulted in the death of three of the pirates, the capture of their leader and the release of Captain Phillips. 

The hijack and siege was recorded in a book - A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Captain Phillips and has been made into a film which I watched today.

Paul Greengrass is a director who when you see his name alongside the film title you know what you are getting, an intelligent action film which carries with it both a satisfying intellectual undercurrent and also a possible political message. Greengrass is one of the most interesting and articulate of interview subjects, he is first and foremost a lover of films a director who learned his trade via early years based in Belfast as a director for ITV's World in Action, a period in his life that would serve him well when he came to direct Bloody Sunday.

 In the UK he is best known among non-cinema anoraks as the person responsible for the second and third films in the 'Bourne Trilogy', sandwiched between those he made 'United 93' which achieves that rare balance of action and a documentary feel to it. He followed those three films with 'Green Zone' which is one of those films that makes the viewer feel uncomfortable and angry, Greengrass admitted in an interview with Sky Arts that he was himself very angry during the making of that film and perhaps overstepped the mark in conveying that anger through his work. And so to his latest work.

I must first say that I have a slight non-cinematic interest in this because one of Janis's nephews, an ex-Royal Marine who served at Basra, is now employed to train the crew of merchant ships how to deal with piracy on the high seas, in particular around the horn of Africa and in the Indian Ocean. By coincidence one of my nurse's (blimey that makes me sound up myself) nephews is also an ex-Royal Marine who is training etc etc. In the case of the nurse's nephew he spent seven months as a prisoner of some pirates, something that rarely gets any publicity in the U.K. The United Nations counter piracy programme makes interesting reading about how the issue is being dealt with. For anybody who thinks that pirates are cuddly Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp types the truth couldn't be more different even though the number of ships attacked by Somali pirates this year is only two compared with twelve last year.

The film doesn't, in my view, portray Captain Phillips as a hero which has been the accusations made by former crew members in the States. What it does show is that despite having received anti-piracy training whilst on shore and a training exercise on ship the day before the boarding the ship itself was woefully short of equipment to deal with an attack when it faced one in a 'real world' situation. Tom Hanks is excellent as Phillips, he portrays the Captain as somebody who seems well qualified for the job he is paid to do whilst almost innocent of the world around him yet at the same time conscious of the changes we are all facing in life, this much we learn from a conversation he has with his wife during the short drive from their house to the airport marking the first five minutes of the film.

There is plenty of tension when the pirates do board the ship and all but three of the crew hide in the engine room. The four Pirates are armed and dangerous but also naive and greedy and reject the offer of a $30,000 pay off from the ship's safe in favour of looking for bigger bounty. This eventually leads to the wounding of one pirate (glass left on the floor behind the door to the engine room) and the capturing of their leader and stabbing in the hand by the crew. The bungled exchange is well handled and the four days that follow with the pirate and Phillips in the lifeboat pursued by the American forces are well handled and suitably claustrophobic. The tension is raised when the Captain of the USS Bainbridge is informed by his superiors that the siege has to end before the lifeboat reaches Somali waters even if this means killing Phillips.

Hanks shows once again that he is one of the most versatile actors around as he moves between feelings of anger and resignation and tries to help the pirate whose foot has been badly cut by the glass incident on the Alabama.

The film is just over two hours long but the time flies by and Greengrass shows once again that he is one of our top directors.


Span Ows said...

Yes, nice write-up; it was the 'trueness' that made me want to go and see it. I haven't actually seen it yet but with one of my sons a current RM 'out that way' thought I'd pick up some background info in case I need to go out on a rescue mission ;-)

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