Special to The History Place
Thanks to the Academy Awards®, where Captain Phillips is nominated for Best Picture and actor Barkhad Abdi is up for Best Supporting Actor, the 2013 action movie is back on local big screens. Finally catching this film on its second time around, I found it fascinating.
Let’s all be honest. No more romantic figure exists in history and literature than the pirate. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island – the inspiration for multiple movies of the same name – to Johnny Depp’s quirky portrayal of Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the 18th century buccaneer has been idolized into a bigger-than-life anti-hero. I can’t recall a Halloween that didn’t bring a few tiny swashbucklers to my front door.
No doubt, real-life pirates of the Caribbean, the South China Sea and the Barbary Coast were all less romantic and heroic than their literary and silver-screen counterparts. That gilding of the lily (or weed, if you wish) ends with Captain Phillips. The Somali pirates of this two-and-a-quarter-hour yarn are half-starved desperados with bad teeth and ragtag regalia. As Abdi’s character “Skinny” explains to the title character, played by Tom Hanks, the big boats came from across the ocean and harvested all the fish. So, “what else are we supposed to do?” Not a bad point, if you ask me.
But if Skinny and his mates are sympathetic characters, they are pirates all the same. And when the quartet somehow manages to capture the MV Maersk Alabama – a behemoth container ship with a crew of about 20 – their fates are essentially sealed. In this thriller-style adaptation of Rich Phillips’s book A Captain’s Duty, the surly crew soon demonstrates that four bad guys, no matter how determined and well armed (AK-47s), can’t control acres of ocean-going vessel and a score of sailors secreted all over the ship. The upshot is that the Somalis end up in a self-enclosed motorized lifeboat with the captain as a hostage and Pollyannaish hopes of a seven-figure ransom.
The rest of the film is your classic hostage-negotiation-while-swat-team-closes-in movie, but with the added twist of bouncing about on the high seas. For “swat team,” substitute US Navy Seals, put them on a Navy warship with two escorts for good measure, and you see how this wasn’t ever a fair fight.
Hanks puts in his predictably first-rate performance. Abdi, he of the Oscar® nomination, is the pleasant surprise. His dialog limited necessarily by his character’s language limitations – much of the most dramatic dialog is in a foreign tongue sans subtitles – he conveys all the complexity of a fisherman qua pirate qua kidnapper on the verge of soiling his patched drawers.
Abdi, who turns 29 this April and looks a whole lot older, was born in Mogadishu, raised in Yemen, and makes his film debut here. But don’t let this brief bio fool you. He’s been in America longer than he was in the Horn of Africa and attended Minnesota State University. He’s been a limo driver and a clerk at the Mall of America. His initiation into show biz was as a disc jockey. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of him on the big and little screens, win or lose at the Oscars®. His haunted, haunting face is unforgettable.
The film is already as long as Director Paul Greengrass probably dared to make it. And given the genre and the pacing of the story, long reflective scenes just weren’t in the cards. And that’s too bad. The chemistry between Hanks and Abdi in the few shots where it was possible are for me the most interesting aspects of the film. I can only wish to have had some more of the same.
We are informed at the film’s end – and since it’s drawn from an international news story and a fairly popular book, this should be no spoiler – that Skinny is doing 30 years in an American high-security prison. So perhaps the real Captain Phillips, who we are told returned to sea after a year’s recuperation and book writing, will drop by sometime for a dose of quality time.
If so, I’ll be jealous. I’d love to meet the real Somali pirate who inspired Abdi’s fascinating and moving performance.
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use.
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Jim Castagnera is the author of 19 books. His latest is Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom