Posts Tagged ‘Paul Greengrass’

21st February
2014
written by Mad Cow

Rated PG for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use

Mad Cow’s Rating: three cowbells

This is an “adventure” movie with a couple of twists. Not only is it a reasonably accurate recounting of a true story, but it lacks the usual slickness, a good thing in my book. We all have come to know about Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia and may have known a bit about what happened to the merchant ship Maersk Alabama. But to me, it’s always been a blur. How do a few guys get onto an enormous ship and take the occupants captive? I have seen merchant ships close-up and they are not small. Now I know. This is the full-blown and terrifying story of what happened to Captain Richard Phillips and his crew, based on the book by Phillips and writer Stephan Talty, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. Billy Ray wrote the screenplay and the movie was directed by Paul Greengrass.

The U.S. container ship commanded by Phillips was hijacked in 2009 by four Somali pirates. For once we get a back story on the bad guys, young skinny (malnourished?) men who are subject to the orders of their village strongman, Hufan (Issak Farah Samatar), who in turn must answer to a bunch of mercenaries who represent a local warlord. Hufan orders Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and Asad (Mohamed Ali) to choose men for the task. Muse chooses Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Najee, (Faysal Ahmed) and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali). [All four men were amateur actors who answered the casting call in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which has the larges population of Somalis in the United States. They know each other before and were thrilled to get the parts and work together.]

Muse and Asad hate each other and struggle for control of the Somali group, which is full of dissent and uncertainty. They’ve got skiffs equipped with maritime radio and are directed by Hufan who is on the “mother ship,” a fishing trailer obtained in a previous hijacking. Phillips, seeing the pirates coming, does all that he can to secure the ship, protect his men, and call for help to the closest official source, the UK Maritime Trade Operations office. He gets no help. Other tactics don’t work either and it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the hijackers eventually get on to the ship. Director Greengrass arranged to have Hanks meet these actors for the first time when, in role, they climbed onto the ship.

As Phillips does what he can to protect his crew, telling them to hide from the hijackers, and negotiating with the Somalis, we know he is scared. They are desperate and in a weird way naïve, rejecting an offer of $30,000, the amount of cash on hand, instead demanding $10 million, since the ship is American after all. Phillips is a leader but a frightened one. We can see him trying different things to say and do to keep the pirates from killing people. At some point he says, “There must be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people.” “Maybe in America, Irish, maybe in America,” Muse replies. Phillips finally offers himself as a hostage in exchange for the safety of his men but we don’t know if that is going to work, and the negotiations move on. Meanwhile the Navy S.E.A.L.S. have been alerted and begun the trip of more than 800 miles for an attempted rescue.

It’s not a spoiler to mention that Captain Phillips survived but the struggles aboard ship and later in the lifeboat are intense and complicated, with constant impulsivity among the pirates and attempted conciliation on the part of Phillips. Both he and Muse are scared and smart and he makes an impression on Muse, who has assumed leadership of the pirates. Muse is menacing in his furious determination to move ahead no matter what, regardless of the obstacles, but you can see him contemplating doubts as he listens to Phillips. Yet Phillips has a gun to his head again and again. Abdi delivers a nuanced performance in this back-and-forth trying to keep control, thinking and above all, rage. Hanks is magnificent in his expression of terror, evoking vast empathy toward him and all human beings that have had to face such torture. What a wonderful departure from the usual macho “we knew we would win,” or “I can withstand anything” tropes.

Some crew members have disagreed with Phillip’s account of the story, suggesting that he was not as much of a hero as he said he was and made errors along the way. I’ve not been able to ascertain the differences very finely and it does come down to whose story to believe. With any supposedly “true” story onscreen there have to be a few grains of salt out there among viewers. Nonetheless, the story is suspenseful and well done. All of the lifeboat scenes were shot inside the tiny lifeboat, adding authenticity to the scenes. And last but not least, Barkhad Abdi has I hope launched a long and successful movie career.