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Saturday, October 12, 2013

"Captain Phillips" 2013 Tom Hanks. Why This Excellent Action Adventure Film Is Not A Ten - How Film Handled Clash of Civilizations


"Captain Phillips" is an excellent action-adventure film. It is riveting, suspenseful, exciting, and very well-made. There are no off moments; no built-in "bathroom breaks." Somali pirates capturing an American ship off the Horn of Africa is a timely and fraught topic.

The film's verisimilitude is so powerful at times I really did drift into thinking that I was watching a documentary. There's a lot of money up on the screen: cargo vessels, beat-up pirate skiffs, ports, open ocean, Navy warships. Even so it was the performances and the pacing that kept my eyes glued to the screen. I found every last character so well played and gripping, right down to the medic who appears toward the end, that I wondered if Director Paul Greenglass had not hired real corpsmen, or real pirates.

Sound is used masterfully. Loud, pulsing music suddenly stops at key moments. Yeah, it's an old trick, but it works especially well here.

This is the kind of film I am grateful to have seen in a theater, and I am eager to recommend to friends. Even though action-adventure is not my genre, I'd re-watch this film, and that is high praise.

This film is so consistently excellent that one must ask why it doesn't raise to the level of a ten-out-of-ten star film. "Captain Phillips" touches on some of the biggest issues of our times: the collision between the First World and the Third World, poverty in Africa, jihad. "Captain Phillips" assiduously avoids addressing any of these issues.

From this film, viewers would never know that the millions of dollars in ship ransom that pirates claim goes to al-Shabaab, the terrorist group that attacked a mall in Kenya. Muse (Barkhad Abdi) offers rationalizations for piracy: Western nations stole Somalia's fish, and piracy is the "tax" for that. Pirates made millions of dollars through piracy. Those millions were not pocketed by the pirates themselves, who work for others. No reference is made to Somalis, in 1993, dragging an American soldier through Mogadishu's streets. Americans were attempting to help Somalis after a famine.

Phillips does mention that his ship, waylaid by pirates, was carrying food aid for hungry Africans.

None of this is gone into in any detail in the script, and it could have been.

Rather, the First World - Third World clash, and the clash of civilizations and religions is communicated solely through images, and, in the absence of a complex script, the images speak very loudly.

Somalia is depicted as a dusty, dry, hellhole. Somalis are depicted as chaotic, unproductive, violent, angry, greedy, and lawless. Somalis are dressed in discarded Western clothing and plastic sandals, or simply barefoot. They live in huts. They only things they possess that give them any power is the guns that they got from Westerners. Somalis hold life cheaply and are ready to kill and die.

Americans are depicted as orderly, disciplined, skilled, courageous, and productive. Americans devote massive amounts of money to saving one life.

When the Somali pirates manage to get their ladder against the Maersk Alabama, the image suggests the pirates as invasive parasites attempting to assault a larger, more successful organism. Whereas the Westerners have built a civilization that creates ships and commerce, the Somalis have created only violence, chaos and greed. They must take guns that they themselves can't manufacture and invade more productive peoples in order to survive. It's an ugly picture, and I can completely understand if Somalis are enraged by this film.

Andrew O'Hehir, Salon's film critic, apparently was enraged by the film, and he lambasted it. It was distressing to O'Hehir to watch "corn-fed, gym-toned" Americans struggle against "malnourished" Africans. That the thin Africans were holding guns to the heads of the Americans did not disturb him. O'Hehir calls the film "unpleasant and uncomfortable." He hated watching American military rescue an American hostage. What a sick dude, you want to say. But his view is all too common.

I greatly enjoyed this movie. It could have been an all-time classic if the script had offered some insight into the issues the images depicted.

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