I'll be pretty for you on Facebook.
Fascination with pirates spans generations and continents. They inspire the dreams of every boy at one point or another. The high seas, the swashbuckling, the undone shirts and parrots shitting on shoulders. It’s all so adventurous and romantic. That is why, at some point, every boy wishes that he could be taken captive by buccaneers and forced to sail the seven seas. He fantasizes about exotic ports of call, about endless months with no land in sight, and of wearing frilly dresses and high heels and doing little dances for them while Blind Jake plays his melodeon, and the frisky ones stuff dubloons into his pantaloons.
Oh, to feel so pretty.
Of course, pirating has changed. Our romantic notion of it is four hundred years old, when they would attack mail boats and Old World galleons hauling back treasures stolen from the natives of the New World. They’d kill sailors, sure. They would burn down coastal villages, and they’d steal directly from the natives, too. Sometimes they’d rape. Sometimes they killed children, or each other, and they rarely actually buried treasure because they spent it on their vices as fast as they stole it. Oh, and they were rife with STDs, lice and ticks, like walking toilet seats from the Attitude Lounge, but without disposable seatcovers to protect you. But the pirates had fun with it. They were lovable scallywags, drunk most of the time, missing flesh due to scurvy and teeth due to biting stuff they shouldn’t bite. They’d have a good laugh, and they’d ask boys to dress pretty and dance for them at night.
Today’s pirates are desperate African men with their backs against the wall. They’re driven into it by brutal poverty and the insatiable appetite for money of warlords who threaten them and their families. They aren’t lovable at all, even when they’re drunk. And they have little use for dancing boys. Plus, they aren’t after chests of gold, but ransoms for crates of TVs and laptops.
I doubt that, four hundred years from now, little boys will dream of sailing the East African coast in leaky skiffs with sweaty, drug-addled and trigger happy men. Neither will the cyborgs running Hollywood be making pirate movies. Hollywood cant wait that long, so they’re making movies about today’s pirates today.
Captain Phillips stars Tom Hanks as a ship’s captain whose name I can’t remember, so let’s call him Captain Smith. The movie tells the story of how his cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates, and how he and his crew escaped. It is apparently true in the larger details, and dramatized in the smaller ones.
As the movie starts, Captain Phillips takes great effort to tell us two things: that Captain Smith is an ordinary joe with an ordinary minivan, wrinkly wife, average house and ordinary everything else; and that he is aware of pirate activity on their ship’s course from Oman to Kenya. Actually, the point about him being just a plain old guy is belabored through dull conversations, gray skies and a beat-up minivan. I got it, already; this is the story of an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. Because, you know, without the suburban home and the husband-wife conversations about the kids and school we would have thought a freighter captain was like Superman or Juan Manuel Fangio or Buck Rogers.
Captain Smith is in charge of a small crew of merchant marines and mechanics. It’s as skeleton a crew as can direct a mostly computerized boat for a couple thousand miles. No room even for a young boy to feel pretty. The ship carries thousands of tons of commercial goods and humanitarian aid. As it passes Somalia, four pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) board the ship. Captain Smith is heroic is dealing with them. Always keeping himself on the front line while protecting his crew. He’s pragmatic in his instruction, too, making sure his crew stays hidden.
When the Somalis fuck up the hijacking, they attempt to escape in a lifeboat and take Captain Smith. That’s when the US Navy steps in with three warcrafts, helicopters and more Seals than an Eskimo Christmas. The second half of the movie takes place largely on a cramped, enclosed boat with four pirates and the captain. It’s effectively claustrophobic and on-edge. The Somalis are scared shitless at being killed either by soldiers at sea or a warlord when they get home. Captain Smith is also crapping his pants. Although, with as many guns pointed at heads and as many deaths imminent, Captain Phillips is very shy about showing people soiling themselves. If I were director Paul Greengrass, I’d have piss and shit everywhere: all over pants, all over floors, up in your grill, smeared on windows and stuffed inside the Thanksgiving turkey. Because every time I get scared, my floodgates open. This is why Mrs. Filthy won’t let me borrow the Goosebumps videos from the kids’ section of the library anymore. Not since her vacuum broke.
Captain Phillips does a great job of making the setting real: both the ship and the lifeboat. Although, I would expect more porn and Little Debbie’s on the ship. I know if I were going to be alone at sea for two weeks, I’d spend the entire time stuffing my piehole with Star Crunch and watching men and women do what they naturally will when paid a few hundred bucks by some creepy guy with a video camera. The fear and tension are palpable throughout the movie. This is what Paul Greengrass does best. He keeps the action tight and realistic. When Hanks gets beat up, it really feels like he’s getting pounded. When a pirate steps on broken glass, it looks painful as fuck.
The scond half of the movie takes place mostly in the lifeboat. An hour is a pretty long time for an audience to be stuck there. Tension builds, sure. The Somalis get all irritable when their Khat (a mild amphetamine-like plant) runs out. Muse struggles to keep the others on task. But after a half hour or so, I wanted an ending, not more bickering and threats. The gulf between the problem and the resolution was longer than it needed to be.
The dialog, too, is sort of banal. I mean, I guess that’s the point, but the movie spends too much effort on giving the pirates and Captain Smith on-the-nose dialog. It works very hard to show that the Somalis are forced into this by the shitty conditions of their homeland. It’s a good point, but could have been illustrated faster and with a payoff. Once he makes that point, Greengrass really doesn’t know what to do with it. They’re still pirates, they’re still trigger-happy, they’re still completely worthy of rooting against, and they still get shot in the head and there is no larger consequence in the world.
Still, it’s an exciting ride, getting captured by pirates the way this Captain Smith does in the movie Captain Phillips. Its Four Fingers could have been Five, if only there were something for us dreamers to latch onto. Maybe a role for pretty boy.