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Friday, November 8, 2013

Not a Review: Captain Phillips

My Thoughts on the Movie and the Maersk Alabama Ship Hijacking

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 11, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action, Adventure, Biography
Running Time: 134 minutes
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Billy Ray (screenplay), 
Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty (book)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, 
Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, 
Mahat M. Ali, Amr El-Bayoumi

I was extremely hesitant to see and write about "Captain Phillips" for a variety of reasons:

1. I don't usually enjoy this type of movie.

2. I am generally not a fan of its director, Paul Greengrass. The Bourne sequels with Matt Damon worked in spite of him, not because of him. (More on that later...)

3. And the big one: a relative of mine was on the boat, and he's suing the shipping company.

His name is Jimmy Sabga. He was quoted by ABC News: "Captain Phillips did not follow orders, the ship was attacked and he was responsible."

Reports indicate that the captain was warned ahead of time about the possibility of pirates and was told to stay 600 miles away from Somalia; instead, his ship – the Maersk Alabama – was only about 250 miles away.

This is already more interesting than the movie itself!

Once again, Hollywood has fictionalized a true story. But it would be hypocritical of me to hold that against the film, when so many other "biopics" do the exact same thing. For example, "A Beautiful Mind" was roundly criticized because its subject – John Forbes Nash – has a few skeletons in his closet that were nowhere to be found on-screen. It's still a great movie.

Therefore, I'll judge Phillips the film solely by what I saw in the theater and withhold any judgment of Phillips the man.

I've obviously never met Richard Phillips, but I can't pretend that I know Jimmy Sabga either – I don't. (It's a big family, and I always meet new people at our reunions. I don't know them, but they all seem to know me.) Truthfully, I'm probably more familiar with Tom Hanks. Still, I'll openly admit it: I can't help but root for good ol' Uncle J.

Now, about that movie...

I've already expressed my distaste for the directorial style of Paul Greengrass. His camerawork is usually choppy to the point of dizzying nausea. That worked wonderfully in "United 93" about the 9/11 airplane hijacking because it created a necessary sense of chaos. However, it made the action sequences in "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" confusing and unbearable to watch. But I have to give credit where it's due: Greengrass has matured considerably as a director. Everything he does in "Captain Phillips" is subtle and serves the situation well. You can almost feel the ship swaying slightly, but he never goes too far with the effect. He doesn't show off. His camera motions are realistic and nuanced.

For a film that's being criticized for turning Phillips into a hero who can do no wrong, he's surprisingly portrayed as, well, quite an asshole.

In one scene, the crew members are chatting with each other and enjoying their coffee. Such camaraderie, I would think, would be encouraged by any half-decent captain. Not Phillips! He gruffly tells them to get back to work. The crew members as essentially depicted as lazy slackers who need the captain to get them in line. It's insulting and ridiculous.

(If this actually happened, Uncle Jimmy is obviously nicer than me, because I would have thrown the captain overboard. Hey, no one takes away my coffee time!)

Later on, the crew yells at Phillips, saying they "didn't sign up for this" – fighting pirates. They didn't. But the captain behaves like an arrogant tyrant and practically bullies them into staying on the ship. Of course, the movie never touches on what Phillips was later accused of in the lawsuit: that he placed them all in that predicament to begin with by ignoring warnings and disobeying orders.

What was hyped above all was Phillips' heroic act – leaving his own ship to go with the Somalians, thereby potentially sacrificing himself for the safety of his crew. I was under the impression beforehand that he willingly put himself in that situation, but the movie presents it as something he was forced to do. I'm not sure how it happened in real life, but the film seems to go out of its way to diminish his big moment of bravery. If the captain realized he screwed up and this was his way of making amends, he deserves credit for acting like a leader instead of following one mistake with many more like most people would. Whatever the case may be, I certainly cannot be critical of what was obviously a very difficult and dangerous situation in real life.

Perhaps they were counting on Hanks's ability to "convey a sense of old-fashioned American decency just by standing in the frame" – as The New York Times puts it – to carry things along. There is definitely no one better at being good than Hanks, but that only goes so far. As we saw in "The Da Vinci Code," even the warm and likeable star of "Forrest Gump" can't save a controversial project many people found offensive for religious reasons. I was offended by "Da Vinci" too. Bad movies offend me greatly!

Make no mistake, "Captain Phillips" isn't a bad movie; it just has issues.

I admire its efforts to present the Somali pirates fairly by examining their dire circumstances and putting a human face on their inhumane actions. But just as the film doesn't quite make Phillips as heroic as it aims to, it goes overboard in the other direction with the pirates. By the end, I found myself sympathizing more with his captors! I don't think that was quite what the filmmakers intended.

Hanks delivers a tremendous performance as the captain in peril, masterfully conveying multiple emotions – fear, anger, hatred, and even concern – sometimes all in the same scene. His four Somalian co-stars - Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali – are absolutely amazing in their own right, which is especially incredible because none of them have ever been in a movie before.

The acting and directing are both superb; any problems "Captain Phillips" has are script-related. In addition to the skewed hero-villain dynamic, the film rarely felt suspenseful to me – despite featuring many big, dramatic moments. Part of the problem, I think, is that it simply feels too long. Granted, I knew the general outcome ahead of time – but that was true of "Argo" too, and that movie kept me on the edge of my seat.

As for Uncle Jimmy, was he even in "Captain Phillips"? Yes! Well, maybe.

Amr El-Bayoumi
Several months ago, IMDB actually included the actual crew members' names for the various actors playing them. That changed somewhere along the way though – maybe because of the lawsuit? Now, they're all listed simply as "Maersk Alabama Crew." Like the idiotic coffee scene, this seems like yet another way to callously diminish their contributions and worth. If anything, the crew members were the bravest because their lives were in the hands of a captain who had already made a bad judgment call. I can't imagine a more helpless feeling.

Luckily, some sites – such as – still list the old cast information. Amr El-Bayoumi plays Jimmy "Sagba." (Yes, to add insult to injury, our damn name is misspelled. Thankfully, El-Bayoumi himself has enough respect for the person he's representing: his Spotlight page contains the correct spelling.) I only recall seeing him in a single scene – the one where the crew objected to combating pirates. He valiantly stood up to Phillips. I laughed, I cried, I clapped and cheered. It's a stunning performance that's a surefire lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. El-Bayoumi was so convincing as Uncle Jimmy that I felt I was at a family reunion instead of in the theater. Yes, I'm kidding. The actor is decades younger and looks nothing like the man he's portraying, but that's probably par for the course in Hollywood. I certainly won't object if they ever make a movie of my life and decide to have Channing Tatum, Brad Pitt (as long as he doesn't come onto the set with the stoner hairstyle he was sporting in "World War Z"), or George Clooney play me. One must make these sorts of sacrifices in the name of great art.

Overall, "Captain Phillips" is a bit of a mixed bag, but it does succeed in taking the viewer on a journey into the heart of a hijacked ship, its terrified captain and crew, and a group of desperate pirates with pressures of their own back home. 

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