Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
Pulled straight out of the 24-hour news cycle, "Captain Phillips" is a tense docudrama at sea that covers the events surrounding the April 2009 hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship by Somali pirates.
In other hands it might have been rendered as a routine actioner. But the director is Paul Greengrass, who has won fame with movies like "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum", and earned credibility as an A-lister with the Irish civil rights drama "Bloody Sunday", the best 9/11-themed movie to date in "United 93", and the Iraq War thriller "The Green Zone", all of which are tightly-wound, in-the-moment, fact-based stories that both entertain and make you think.
So it goes with "Captain Phillips". There are elements of action here, but the reason why I think it's so gripping is because the story is built from the inside out as a thoughtful study in contrasts. It juxtaposes the expansive reach of American power with the desperation of emaciated third-worlders for whom civil strife and globalization have left them with no good options.
The movie wastes little time zeroing in on our main players, with scenes establishing each of their missions. Tom Hanks is our titular skipper, a 50-something marine merchant from Massachusetts with that unmistakable New England accent. He worries aloud to his wife on the way to the airport about the world their kids are inheriting and about his long trips overseas. He's flying off to helm the MV Maersk Alabama, a large ship containing aid relief among its cargo.
Meanwhile, in the small coastal town of Eyl in Somalia (Africa's pointy ear to the east) local men are assembled to take down scores out in the ocean. It's either that or take a bullet and let someone else go in your place. A leader emerges in the form of Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi, just one of several Somali-born actors from the Minnesota area hired for the film.
Occupying a couple of skiffs, Muse and company approach the Maersk in an exciting sequence that shows a clever Captain Phillips feigning a distress call to U.S. Maritime authorities in the area, resulting in one of the skiffs hastily turning back out of fear. Muse's crew presses forward, only to be outrun by the Maersk, which Phillips has thrown into high gear.
That buys the Americans precious little time before Muse and crew finally catch up in a jarring shot showing a band of stick figures with AK-47's trying to board the large vessel, which has external hoses turned on in defense. It's a nice little water show, but why isn't Phillips' crew armed, we wonder? I'll return to that question later.
Once aboard the ship, the pirates confront Phillips and his immediate crew, while the rest of the crew are locked way down in the bowels of the Maersk's engine room. "I'm the captain now", sneers Muse. And what does he want as captain? Money. Phillips assures them they can have $30,000 that is locked aboard the ship's safe. A cat and mouse game ensues with Phillips taking the Somalis through the Maersk on a tour that is meant to find the rest of the crew, but which Phillips is using to waste time so his men can organize and retaliate.
A dramatic struggle ensues. Muse is taken hostage by Phillips' men, while Phillips is taken by the rest of the Somali bandits, leading us into the film's final act aboard a claustrophobic covered lifeboat where the four Somalis take Phillips hostage, demanding a $10 million ransom. Within hours, the force of America's power appears in the form of huge battleships and Navy SEALS dropping in from choppers hovering above. It's a shot that speaks volumes of the disparity between the haves and have nots, as a hulking American military industrial complex surrounds a vessel the size of a piece of chewing gum with bad guys inside who don't even appear to have shoes.
Hanks and Abdi do an amazing job of making their characters into human beings. A lesser movie would play on the level of heroes and villains, but here we get the sense that Phillips and Muse see all of this as a sort-of business transaction, only an unfortunate one at that. Hanks is a different kind of Everyman here: older, grayer, and with a fatherly weariness that reveals itself in honest human moments, like when he offers to help the youngest of Muse's men to disinfect a foot injury. Abdi has a trickier role in that he's not a typical baddie, but a desperate young man who wants to score a big payload at sea and earn the respect of mob elders.
I knew exactly how this was going to end, but I was totally absorbed by it nonetheless. "Captain Phillips" is a movie that makes you feel like you were there, and for the most part it stays true to the details of the story. Some of Phillips' crew are in the process of suing the shipping company for negligence in a court case due in Alabama later this fall. They say the captain ignored clear warnings to take a diversionary route due to a rash of recent pirating incidents leading up to the Maersk misadventure. Greengrass does a good job of showing those moments early on. Was Phillips negligent or just stubborn? I think the latter, with a side of hubris. He's run that route numerous times over three decades and he understands that it costs money and the potential for bonuses to have his ship arrive late.
In the year leading up to this event, Somali pirates made off with an estimated $80 million and $6.5 million in ransom money. Wouldn't that be enough of a loss to arm the crew of these shipping vessels? That's a sticky question, because it involves multinational corporations having to spend money to lobby world governments, to hire guards, buy guns, purchase licensing fees, and to train crew members. Some of them do, while most of them don't. Why? Because the American military is a phone call away. How's that for irony on the matter of welfare queens?
Intelligent, well-paced, and wonderfully acted, "Captain Phillips" is yet another strong effort at sea during this good-movie season and another fine outing by Greengrass, whose QueasyCam technique for handheld shots is kept in check throughout, though more sensitive stomachs should find a seat near the back, just in case.