Review by Ken Burke Captain Phillips
High-seas drama, well-executed, based on real events about 4 bold Somali pirates who capture a huge freighter and take its captain hostage, demanding millions in ransom.
Intentionally silly and bloody action story where a seemingly indestructible Mexican vigilante is recruited to save the world from destruction by a madman and his goons.
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So, just like with Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012), we have another big-budget, high-stakes drama based on actual events where the Navy SEALs come riding to the rescue (replacing the older archetype of the Army’s cavalry saving distraught travellers in many a western, such as John Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach), with the director’s task—in this case, Paul Greengrass with Captain Phillips—being that of taking a cluster of historical facts where the ending is generally known to the movie-going public (even if just by osmosis such as seeing an issue of Parade in the Sunday newspaper a few weeks ago with the real Merchant Marine officer on the cover alongside Tom Hanks, thereby dispelling any concern that he survived his captivity from back in early spring 2009), yet making a compelling drama out of it anyway. Bigelow and Greengrass both succeed admirably, helped by a lot of star power and dramatic action scenes with Zero Dark Thirty and the central star in effective interaction with some powerful novices in a lot of tight shots that force us to focus on character emotions despite the wide-open spaces of the high-seas-setting in Captain Phillips. However, before getting into plot details or Hank’s hopes for another Best Actor Oscar nomination, I’ll start with some concerns raised about the nature of heroism, which we can link to that Parade’s cover headline of Sept. 22, 2013, “THE MAKING OF A HERO” (actual story, “CAPTAIN COURAGEOUS” by Katherine Heintzelman and Jennifer Rainey Marquez, available at http://www.parade.com/157589/katherineheintzelmanjenniferrainey marquez/ in which Capt. Phillips doesn’t call himself by such terms but says rather that “A hero is someone who [is braver] five minutes longer” while Hanks says that “A hero is somebody who voluntarily walks into the unknown”). You can get a video version of how the actual Capt. Phillips (in this case a Merchant Marine, not a Navy, title) has generally presented his case ever since the incident in the 2nd suggested video link far below (from a 2010 interview) or you can read his 2010 book (co-written with Stephen Talty) A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea. However, you can also watch the 3rd suggested video far below to see how the rest of the crew of the hijacked Maersk Alabama cargo ship has responded to the media-saturation claims of Phillips’ heroism, their continued concern that the whole event might have been avoided had he stayed farther off the Somali coast as he was warned to do, and their rejection of the story that he voluntarily offered himself as a hostage in order to spare their lives (he disputes that aspect of the piracy himself, saying he never claimed it to be true that he was a willing prisoner). All of this conflicting evidence over what happened in international waters off the coast of Africa over 4 years ago shouldn’t diminish audience appreciation for how well Greengrass, Hanks, and the rest of the cast and film crew pull off an exceptionally tense and impactful film—one worthy of award considerations when the calendar year has concluded—but it does reinforce a point I made in some academic journal articles published way back in 1990 about how our cultural understanding of heroes ends up being based more successfully on the mythological/theatrical/literary/cinematic (and its offspring in TV, video games, etc.) traditions that we’ve inherited through millennia of human social development than through our attempts to transfer those fictional protagonists onto the often-reconsidered-and-undermined-full-lives of real people whom we initially admired for performing brave and/or benevolent acts on behalf of others.
It’s not that those who spend their lives or even just one day in service to society’s forgotten or harmed (such as Mother Teresa for the bulk of her long life or the many volunteers who helped the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing on the day of the attack) or those who face up to a singular challenge while protecting others in the process (such as Phillips’s strategy to hide his crew in the engine rooms to prevent temper-flaring casualties or airline Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s 2009 precision-landing of a disabled passenger jet into NYC’s Hudson River) aren’t worthy of attention in the news, public praise for their actions, and attempts to celebrate their deeds in docudrama media events, but invariably—just like with the military warriors, politicians, and public crusaders who are also looked upon for salvation from segments of their troubled fellow citizens—these real-life “heroes” often fail to be the inspirational models that their intended-followers hope for, either because of character or incident flaws that have to be admitted, ignored, or fictionalized away; rejection by these higher achievers of public praise for their deeds; larger contexts that somewhat reduce their own roles in their celebrated events (Phillips says that the only heroes in his hijacking were the SEALs who killed his captors before their desperation could lead to his demise); or simply the reality that one miraculous situation that took a few minutes of one day (as in Sullenberger’s almost-impossible water landing that spared the many lives of all aboard his airplane) is worthy of admiration in itself but doesn’t provide the substance to build any sort of cult (deserved or not) around the individual’s entire life (however, in our instant-celebrity-of-the-moment-society, the material payoffs for such recognition may be all of the reward that the individual involved could ask for, although it then takes the rest of us far too long to simply leave these one-shot celebrities alone after their dust has settled). Very few of these real-life heroes (including scores of police officers, firefighters, medical responders and surgeons, etc.) go into their crisis situations looking for glory or fame (even if we insist on connecting it to them), but because what they’ve accomplished in a given moment of decision reminds us so much of what we celebrate endlessly in the comic-book-movie-triumphs of James Bond, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Thor, and our other fictional protectors we often get sloppy with our use of the term “hero,” just as we often simplify the concept of “villain” to be anyone who’s not in league with our community’s/nation’s values and activities, forgetting that, for example, to the tribes of constantly-deprived Somalis (presented to us at the film’s beginning in their desolate desert environment, paralleling our introduction to Phillips as he gets his orders to head to the Middle East for his latest voyage, discussing with wife Andrea [Catherine Keener] on the way to the airport what a difficult world we now live in, how much harder it will be for their children to grow up in such an environment—ironically, I remember my mother saying that about my unfolding world when I was a preteen back in the late 1950s) that the 4 pirates of the Maersk Alabama come from, these men are considered to be heroic warriors, bringing needed material booty to a select segment of an impoverished, war-torn nation (where things are so bad that to even volunteer to be in a pirate crew you have to offer some sort of bribe to the boat’s commander), even as we properly see them as criminals, possibly dangerously so because of their hair-trigger personalities fueled by fear (of death from their opposition when their “simple” act of piracy-for-ransom brings in the full weight of the well-armed U.S. Navy or punishment back home from their clan elders for not completing their assigned mission) and a constant ingestion of drug-inspired adrenalin from chewing their local khat plant. As Phillips says late in the film to the pirates’ “captain,” Muse (Barkhad Abdi), “You’re not just a fisherman”—noting that his excuse for ongoing Somali piracy is that industrial nations have come to their waters, depleting the marine life so that the locals can’t survive, yet it’s clear that these hopped-up, machine-gun-totting guys have been corrupted by the same material desires that they supposedly fight against, as the offer to simply take the $30,000 in the ship’s safe and leave is rejected in favor of holding the freighter (later, just its Captain) hostage for a $10 million payday, not just to benefit the clan but also to enhance the prestige of the individual pirates within their own society.
No one’s a pure hero or villain here (as will be the exaggerated case in our next analysis, that of Machete Kills, although its absurd [hopefully] depiction of U.S. government actions gets a possibly-serendipitous parallel in Captain Phillips when Hanks first attempts to contact the U.S. Maritime Emergency office but gets no answer so he has to turn to the similar U.K. agency instead—we weren’t doing government furloughs back in 2009, but the result certainly feels the same as some shortfall problems today), which, to his credit, Greengrass emphasizes as he shows that Phillips is unknowingly kept as hostage in the escape craft as he was supposed to be simply exchanged for Muse (whom the crew had surprised and captured) rather than volunteering for some sort of noble sacrifice, the pirates aren’t shown as any sort of coordinated unit but have bitter divisions and motives both within their small group (especially between Muse and Najee [Faysal Ahmed], who’s constantly on the verge of mutinying against Muse in order to follow his own visions—to his credit, Najee’s correct that the plan that results in Muse going aboard the Navy’s destroyer, U.S.S. Bainbridge, for final negotiations between the U.S. and the clan elders is all a ruse, leading eventually to Muse’s capture [and piracy conviction, for which he’s still serving his 33-year sentence in an Indiana penitentiary]) and with the larger clan that they represent, and the film’s plot is played for the tension of how superior size and technology still require thoughtful planning and a certain degree of luck to bring about the desired result (at least from the perspective of Phillips, the Navy, and American audiences watching every tension-filled minute of this well-crafted, well-executed 134-minute exercise in nerve-stretching dilemmas, especially toward the end as the exasperated pirates increasingly start pushing their weapons into Phillips’ head and chest—we can’t possibly imagine how sharpshooters firing from dozens of yards away could take out all 3 of them before 1 finally terminates Phillips, despite our foreknowledge that he somehow survives). Captain Phillips is, accordingly, a terrifying drama of events, near-escapes (the pirates’ small craft is almost overturned by pounding streams of water from the Maersk Alabama’s fire hoses [along with flares, the only “weapons” available to these Merchant Marines]; Phillips actually gets out of the lifeboat toward the end of his ordeal and tries to swim away, only to be caught and hauled in again), decisions that thankfully pay off for the Americans (the negotiator’s ploy of “bringing in elders” for the final resolution, somewhat made plausible by this clan’s bounty of a $6 million ransom collected the previous year for a captured Greek freighter), and situations that happen to work against the Somalis (surrounded by 3 huge Navy ships, the pirates are on a tiny escape craft that soon leaves them with no food, water, or khat, increasing their desperation to somehow save their own lives and find any solution to their spun-completely-out-of-control-original-plan). No one is a superhuman conqueror here—the resource-starved Somali pirates are so thin that you’d think a well-connected wave would have knocked all of them out of their original small boat; by the end of his ordeal Phillips has been tied up so that he’s frantic with no real hope for escape, then goes into shock when he becomes covered with the spewing blood of his captors so that by the time he’s helped onto the Bainbridge he can barely talk or make sense of his situation—no one has a fool-proof plan, and it’s only through the tossed dice of good fortune that the SEALs finally get an opportunity to see all 3 of the remaining pirates on the lifeboat through its windows in order to fire simultaneously on each of them. The following scene of Phillips escorted to the destroyer’s sickbay shows how the trauma still isn’t over for the captain, as all of the calm he struggled to maintain during the several days of the crisis evaporates while we understand that physical rescue isn’t yet enough to finalize emotional rescue (those of you who know my schtick of referring readers to popular songs to “harmonize” with the content of films under review may be disappointed that I don’t link you to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” here, but somehow connecting Mick Jagger’s extreme falsetto warblings with the events of Captain Phillips just seems too tacky, even for me).
As shown by the photo here, contrasting the immense military resources that the U.S. can choose to bring to bear on a situation when the circumstances allow—in this case because everyone’s still in open waters rather than the planned escape back to the shores of Somalia—against the tiny boat that holds the 4 pirates and their captive gives us the impression that the rescue of Captain Phillips was inevitable, or at least that this small band of criminals was in a hopeless situation concerning their own lives because if they make the mistake of killing their prisoner then their fate would be immediately sealed. Further, given that 3 of them did die as the result of superior firepower and the other 1 now spends the best years of his life locked away in prison it could seem in retrospect that the inevitable was preordained. But none of those assumptions, even as backed up by the facts of this relatively-long-ago-event, does anything to diminish the impact and power of what we experience while watching Captain Phillips. While not an open-and-shut case of dignity vs. cruelty (Phillips is constantly lying to the pirates in an attempt to catch them off-guard to give his crew or himself a chance to disable these mercenaries or escape from them, yet he also shows genuine concern for the bleeding foot of Bilal [Barkhad Abdirahman] as the result of a broken-glass ploy that he arranged with the crew when Muse and Bilal were searching for the missing men; just before Muse agrees to go to the Bainbridge in hopes that the negotiating arrangement with the elders is valid, we see how terribly lost this young man is, trying both to find some hope of a positive outcome in this botched hijacking and how tenuous his grip is on retaining command over his 3 comrades who seem as ready to shoot him as they do Phillips), it’s clear that piracy is not being rationalized nor tolerated here despite the horrible conditions that plague Somalia, that desperation leads anyone to do or at least consider the most dangerous or inexcusable options, and that no matter what you might think of Phillips’ qualifications for heroism (including his decision to go back to the seas, in June 2010), he was obviously able to keep a cool head in almost-intolerable circumstances (as did Muse, for the most part, as well as the Navy commanders of the rescue mission) for which his crew should be justifiably grateful (even if they have good reason to question his operational motives—although the film lets him off the hook by implying that his route was determined by the Maersk company to stay further out to sea than the regular crowded shipping lanes [where small boats of pirates wouldn’t attempt such an attack] in order to get the job of sailing from Oman to Kenya past the Somali “Horn of Africa” done in a faster, cost-efficient manner).
Both Hanks and Abdi may be grateful at awards-nomination-time because both contribute strongly to the success of this film (it would be quite a coup for Abdi, in that he and his fellow pirates—Abdirahman, Ahmed, and Marat M. Ali as Elmi—are all previously-non-actors from Minneapolis, residents of a Somali-American enclave, recruited by a casting call; I just hope that his next role isn’t that of a zombie, though, because his gaunt appearance would too easily lead to that attempt on someone's part); however, Greengrass, along with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (whose frequent use of grainy images enhances the pseudo-documentary feel of what we’re watching) and editor Christopher Rouse should get some recognition as well for the marvelous manner in which they were able to take an event that occurs on a huge freighter in the open waters of the Gulf of Aden/Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean and make it seem so confining even in scenes that don’t take place deep in the hold of the ship or within the tiny enclosed lifeboat. Basically this is accomplished with rapid successions of closeup and mid-shots that isolate the characters from each other, making them seem trapped within the film frame (Alfonso Cuarón provides an interesting oppositional effect in Gravity by mostly using very wide shots that place the stranded astronauts against the vast emptiness of deep space but then imply the confined view that they have of their open territory by showing us reflections on the visors of their helmets, either of Earth when we’re viewing them externally or of their own faces when we look subjectively with them through the visors out toward the emptiness threating to swallow them up [review of Gravity in this blog in our October 9, 2013 posting]) as the reality of their terrible situation quickly establishes itself in the opening minutes of Captain Phillips, then escalates right up to the ghastly shootings at the end. This is all very serious stuff, very seriously done, for which I offer high praise to Greengrass and all who worked with him on this film. Things aren’t so serious with Machete Kills, though, so to start steering us on a course toward the silly side of current cinema, I’ll close out on Captain Phillips with a song that doesn’t attempt to match its level of intensity but at a foundational level the message is what was obviously rolling through Phillips’ mind (in the real guy or Hanks as him) from the first time he saw a suspicious blip on his radar, “Rescue Me,” a big 1965 hit for Fontella Bass (whose surname is just coincidentally connected to oceans, I swear) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwt3kr0_l6I.
OK, on to Robert Rodriquez’s Machete Kills, which I originally wasn’t even going to see (I skipped on the previous installment by Rodriguez, 2010’s Machete [in which a bunch of name actors join the title character, played by Danny Trejo, in a ultra-violent parody of anti-Mexican-immigration politics], having seen enough over-the-top-parody-of-grotesque-cinema in the movie that launched what’s now becoming the Machete franchise, the collaboration between Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, Grindhouse , which contains a fake trailer for what would become a reality with Trejo a few years later), attempting to maintain my haughty “I’ve-got-better-things-to-do-than-waste-my-time-and-money-on-this-absurd-trash (intentional though it may be)” attitude; however, after enduring a lot of tension over the last week regarding the impending financial default of the U.S. in order to satisfy the boneheaded demands of a bunch of extremist politicians (my interpretation; feel free to praise them as patriots if you’re so inclined), the impending strike of our San Francisco-area subway/elevated-train system, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), a sick wife (stomach virus), and an elderly sick cat (too much to detail here)—not to mention the demise of my beloved Oakland Athletics in the first round of the American League Division Playoffs (6th time since 2000 they’ve lost at that level in Game 5; how’s that for consistency), with only the U.S. debt mess fixed as I write this tonight—I decided I needed a brainless break, so off to the theater I went for a Senior Bargain Monday matinee (if I was going to see this stupid thing, at least I paid only $6.50 for it, a nice decrease over even the usual Senior discount). Surprisingly, I found it reasonably entertaining, although that may be because I didn’t see the seemingly-better 1st one, based on many reviews that say this current episode is too derivative of the original. But, let’s face it: If the sight of Sofía Vergara shedding any semblance of her decency as a wife and mother (admittedly, in eye-catching, form-fitting outfits) in TV’s Modern Family in order to play whorehouse madam Desdemona, strapping on a machine-gun bra (and later a smaller dildo-type version), attracts you to see this film, you probably aren’t going to complain much about anything that happens in it, no matter how absurd (so, if you’re finally connecting the “greasy” part of my title for this week’s review to stereotypes about Mexicans, hold your fury about my use of derogatory language until you see what Rodriguez intentionally dishes up in this collage of secret-agent, global-catastrophe, and sexist/racist-stereotype elements, all done in the name of inane parody of the type of mindless-violence-1970’s-low-budget-throwaways that he and Tarantino were celebrating a few years ago in Grindhouse—a semi-classic, at least within a certain context).
If you need any sense of what passes for a plot here, the important elements are that Machete is saved from hanging by assume-any-Latino-is-an-illegal-alien-so-who-needs-a-trial?-Arizona-sheriff Doakes (William Sadler) via a last-second phone call from President Rathcock (Get it? Played by it’s-my-birth-name-but-you-know-me-better-as-Charlie-Sheen Carlos Estévez; there’s a cute bit when Machete first arrives in Washington and meets the President in the South West Wing, a reference to Dad Martin Sheen’s [originally Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez] former Presidential role in TV’s The West Wing). If that’s not enough right there to tell you not to take any of the rest of this story even marginally seriously, then you’ve been watching too much Fox News. Anyway, it seems that a Mexican madman, Mendez (Demián Bichir)—actually, he’s just a half-madman because he’s developed a crazed split personality so that his original persona of a dedicated revolutionary attempting to clean up government corruption and the murderous drug cartels (the same motivation that turned former Federale Machete into an independent operator) is often overtaken by an extortionist side (not a contortionist side, but I’m surprised they didn’t manage to work that joke in here somewhere)—who’s got a missile aimed at D.C. that Machete needs to disarm (which says nothing helpful nor hopeful about our anti-ballistic missile defense system). There’s a bunch of other stuff about man-hating S&M dominatrix Desdemona and her vicious bunch of hooker hitwomen; a vigilante hitman called La Camaleón, played variously by Walt Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas, with the ability to change faces and body types at will to escape detection; some lusty scenes with Machete’s government handler (in more ways than one)/undercover beauty contestant, Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard); help for Machete from one-eyed Luz (Michelle Rodriguez)—better known by the great-pun name of Shé—of the illegal undocumented (see, I’m even being more politically correct than the director, so put away those knives, muchachos) immigrant movement, The Network; and then the final confrontation with the real villain of the piece, Voz (Mel Gibson, probably in the type of role that best suits his public image now), who’s got other versions of Mendez all over the globe with missiles aimed at various national capitals so that he can destroy Earth while he, his cloned bodyguards (all based on hulking Zaror [Marko Zaror]), and his misinformed-but-wealthy-“guests” escape to a space station (he’d better check with Cuarón’s Gravity folks to see if that debris is still flying around up there) until he can rebuild the planet to his specifications. Along the twisted way, there are allusions to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964), Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), and Zoot Suit (Luis Valdez, 1981)—among many others, I’m sure—with the opening credits themselves a similar hodgepodge of James Bond, Jackson Pollack, and Metallica. If you need to find any logic behind any of this that’s not based on flying weapons, gushing blood, and as many almost-bare-breasts as you can barely stuff into a leather bra then you’re clearly at the wrong movie.
What you take away from Machete Kills (for me, it was mostly the empty popcorn bag and soda cup because I hadn’t had time that day for any other food before the 3:30 show time) will depend largely on what expectations you had going in. If you couldn’t tell from the images in the ads and previews that you were about to be immersed in sex, violence (not much in the way of rock and roll, though), and intentional absurdity then I’m glad you don’t determine my movie-going schedule; further, if anything about Machete Kills came as any sort of surprise for you, then I’m sure it was a pleasant one as what came bursting out of the screen at you (from Desdemona’s deadly bra, among other sources) must have exceeded your expectations. However, more informed critics than I on this topic tell me that you’re much better off with the previous Machete, offering only a 30% approval rating for this sequel at Rotten Tomatoes (and even audience response at that site rises to only 53%, based on about 23,000 responses as I’m writing tonight, so there’s no great support there either). For me, it was a pleasant-enough diversion on the afternoon of a busy, tiring day, but as to whether I’d invest anything further in the next episode, Machete Kills Again … In Space—where yet another trailer promises that the battle between our hero and the evil Voz continues, apparently including even more Star Wars references and Luz somehow regaining her good left eye she lost in this episode, which left her fully blind but still deadly—I think I’ll just have to wait for the reviews. As for music to finish off these comments on Machete Kills but hopefully lowering your testosterone level a bit until we meet again next week, I’ll offer this oddity that’s very much in the spirit of what Señor Rodriguez crafted for us, a version of Ennio Morricone’s famous theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966) as performed by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLgJ7 pk0X-s. Stick around when they finish; maybe you can convince them to play the theme from TV’s Hawaii Five-O (I don’t think they’ve done that yet, but if they have please let me know).
If you’d like to know more about Captain Phillips here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GK8a-Vx5LjE (8:55 ABC News interview with the actual Captain Richard Phillips from 2010 in which he presents a strong image of himself and his actions with the pirates) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYEM6NnUmeU (6:07 very recent CNN report on Capt. Phillips where crew members dispute his story of heroism and offer complaints that he was reckless in steering the course much too close to Somalia in order to speed up the trip to save money for the Maersk shipping company, all of which he disputes but he does call the Navy the only real heroes of the situation, which is similar to what you’ll find at http://www.youtube.com /watch?v=lVSCZEjoBKw, a very strange collage of imagery from the actual event with music that includes what seems to be a Navy SEALs fight song [a machismo chant appropriate to the self-image of Machete, one put in a bit less grandiose context by Michael Crowley in “’Captain Phillips’ and Hollywood’s New Navy SEAL Cult” at http://swampland.time.com/2013/10/11/captain-phillips-and-hollywoods-new-navy-seal-cult/—which may require you to be a Time subscriber to access, I’m not sure])
If you’d like to know more about Machete Kills here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BO1WwOQowlg (I’ll leave it to you as to whom “appropriate audiences” for this movie would be)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uixzforUjE4 (9:02 interview with director Robert Rodriquez and actors Danny Trejo and Alexa Vega—hosted by my favorite TV personality, Houston’s own Jake Hamilton; “favorite” here because we don’t hear too much of him compared to his interviewees)
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