captain phillips
Drama, English Movies, Recently Posted

Captain Phillips – Subtle, gripping and surprisingly poignant

Captain Richard Phillips: There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people

Muse: Maybe in America, Irish, maybe in America

Captain_Phillips_poster Initially, I admit, I was a bit reluctant to watch the movie. For a couple of reasons – post the complex and sensitive ‘Syriana’, it has been tough work   finding a portrayal that was is not either a self-pitying American version of white man’s burden or an out and out macho version of how American military goes about its business. Though thankfully, movies like Rambo have moved out of fashion. Secondly, the theme seemed like one where there will be quite a bit of action – though with Tom Hanks in there, I was sure it wont be of the Bruce Willis and Nakatomi Tower variety. More like the cat and mouse variety, I reckoned

Well, I can say that I feel lucky that I was persuaded to watch Captain Phillips. In its short running time, it was gripping and surprisingly subtle, with the best acting, probably, not coming from Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips but Barkhad Abdi playing Muse, the Somali pirate captain. At the end, it leaves with you with a feeling of having watched a well made, well balanced movie. It also leaves you with an ache you cant shake off.

The story is a true one. Captain Phillips and his commercial ship is given chase and taken over by a group of Somali Pirates as they pass through the notorious Somalia coastline. Though Phillips tries every trick available to him, Muse and his crew are determined enough and desperate enough to get on the ship. Once on the ship, there ensues a cat and mouse game between Phillips and the Muse, with the captain’s intention being to stall everything long enough for help to come by and Muse trying to get everything in control by getting the whole crew in one place. That’s the first half

Which is a prelude to the second half. The relationship between the two principal players – Phillips and Muse becomes more involving and complex, with the scene shifting to a claustrophobic lifeboat, where a wrong move would mean instant death, with all those Kalashnikovs jostling for space. Both are captains – one employed and one self-proclaimed. And as it were, both are men with experience and have handled crisis situations before. But here, both men begin to realize that they are up against forces bigger than themselves and as US warships appear on the horizon, both seem to have an inkling that that the end will not be a happy one, atleast for one of them.

Both the men have strong and multi-layered personalities. But it is Muse who comes out with the most depth. His eyes, his actions and his words, sparse and laconic as they were, bring out a person who, in another world, would have been the hero character.

As he explains to Phillips, he and his comrades are fishermen. But the fishes are all taken by the world that Phillips represents. So for him, its business, plain and simple – the only business transaction that can be between a poor, desperate, war-ravaged people and a world that conducts multi-billion dollar maritime business on its coastline. And he knows the stereotypes very well. The first thing he says to Phillips is – “Nobody gets hurt, no Al-Qaeda here”

Paul Greengrass, the director, subtly uses powerful visuals and short terse dialogues to move the scenes forward. Which is a very good thing. A longer preachy version could have been an easy alternative for a lesser director. The character of Muse and his desperados are treated with care and we are given fleeting glimpses of these men’s thoughts. Which is again a good thing. Muse and his men start as aliens to our perception of the world and never quite become relatable. But neither do they ever become stick figures, golliwogs, disposable characters who we feel happy to be taken care of by the almighty US military. That they are men who have much more depth than just being gun-toting, rags wearing, scary looking men from an incomprehensibly violent world, is eased out by Greengrass slowly and subtly

The image when Muse opens the tiny lifeboats hatch and gazes upon huge warships from the most advanced military nation in history bearing down upon him is one of the most telling. You suddenly get an image of the scale of this battle – like the image of the Palestinian boy throwing rock at an Israeli tank. That image spoke a lot of words. And the words that followed were even more powerful – as Muse turns to Phillips and says – “Its going to be all right Irish”, Irish being the nickname Muse gives Phillips. Phillips, uncomprehending as to how someone can carry on with the situation hopeless as this, is answered by Muse with the reason – because he has come too far. That’s something that is as incomprehensible to the lay watcher as it is to Phillips. That’s a gulf in understanding that the director may have intentioned.

And of course, what can be most evocative of this gulf than one of the most powerful dialogues of the movieCaptain Phillips Muse

    Captain Richard Phillips: There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people

    Muse: Maybe in America, Irish, maybe in America

It’s a watch that I would recommend, more so probably because I almost missed it and that would have been a loss. And you just might come away with an indefinable ache that probably only comes from good cinema

By the way, this also encouraged me to read more on Somali pirates and the Somali civil war in general. Another sign of some good cinema isn’t it – when it encourages you to stay with it


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