‘Captain Phillips’ and his Pirate Days

Let’s be clear from the outset. If your vision of pirates is the Pirates of Penzance or Peter Pan and Captain Hook, or for that matter that good Kentucky boy Johnny Depp, then you have a totally romanticized, and wrong vision of pirates. Pirates, ranging from Blackbeard off the coast of North Carolina to the Somalia pirates in the movie Captain Phillips are nothing like that. They are not swashbucklers– whatever that may be.

They are often ruthless, heartless, cut throats. Indeed, they are where the expression cut-throat, walk the plank, keel haul and other such delights come from. ‘Avast ye hearties’. So it is a good thing to go and see this new film, based on the real story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, and have a reality check about pirates. Real pirates are not fun and they’re not funny. They are rather like the pirates of Somalia. Think of something else to dress up your children as for Halloween. I’m just saying.

This film, in terms of genre, is a rescue film, and since we already know the outcome, the tension in the film does not come from not knowing how this will all end. No its about HOW the rescue comes about, and more than anything else, about the superb acting job of Tom Hanks in this film, America’s cinematic every man who can play any role and do it well (e.g. check out Saving Private Ryan or Forrest Gump to cite two extremes). I agree entirely with the reviewers of this film that say Hank’s acting in the denouement of the film is perhaps his finest hour, and certainly is worthy of an Oscar nomination if not an Oscar nod.

This film is gritty, and the visuals are deliberately grainy at times, and effectively so. My only real complaint is that the film is a bit too long, the rescue is dragged out too much, especially after the rescuers have already been in place for no little time. The film is aptly titled, because it does indeed focus on the plight and perseverance of the veteran ship’s captain from Vermont.

During the credits we are told that the real life captain in question went back out to sea once more only a little over a year after he was returned to his family through the heroic efforts of the Navy, specifically its Seals (see Zero Dark Thirty from two years ago, or the recent news stories about the Seals in Somalia). If one has an hankering to ask why would he do that, then one doesn’t really understand fishermen, sailors, and ship’s captains very well.

It has often been said that truth is stranger than fiction, which, if it weren’t a cliche, might be applied to this film. What this film proves however is that the reality of an rescue like this cannot adequately be conveyed through the unreal medium of movies. A film can be realistic, but not real. It can generate emotions but not the pathos of the actual events. It can be virtual reality…. but not reality.

And perhaps in an era when our nation has been binging on fear of terrorists it is a relief to have them confined to the screen, trapped within a two hour and twenty one minute film, and then, when the reality credits role, we can be reassured that the pirate captain is now confined to quarters in a penitentiary in Indiana. It’s always a good thing when we realize ‘the pirate life is not for me’.


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