Dear Mr. Spacey,
Let me start by saying you and your producing partner at Trigger Street, Dana Brunetti, have made a fine film, a very fine film. Captain Phillips is inarguably one of the best of the year. Tom Hanks gives such an emotional, gut-twisting, and realistic performance, that he will undoubtedly receive another well-earned Oscar nomination. (He won’t win of course. He can’t win. Not this year. If the Academy gives it to the middle-aged white guy this year of all years, there will be blood in the streets. But I digress.)
The movie follows the titular sea captain of the US container ship, Maersk Alabama, starting in the non-seafaring state of Vermont, where he bids farewell to his wife (played by the always terrific Catherine Keener in her one and only scene). There is something about their conversation in the car that is at once comfortable and mundane, and yet we feel the twinge of fear and dread that she probably always feels as he departs on one of these trips. We’d feel it even if we didn’t know what was about to happen, because she feels it. The next thing we know, we’re onboard the huge vessel as it prepares to leave the port of Oman, where it is immediately clear that Phillips himself is worried about the possibility of attack from pirates, especially in the face of his crew’s apparent lax attitude and the ship’s inadequate security measures. (People are screaming themselves hoarse to protect the rights of US citizens to own an assault rifle, but these guys, aboard an American ship aren’t allowed to have guns?)
As we come to find out, it’s not paranoia. There have been numerous recent attacks in the same waters Captain Phillips is about to navigate. And soon enough, his fears are realized as two small skiffs full of gangly young Somalis, hurling insults at each other, make a beeline for his boat. (Speaking of insults, I found it interesting that they call each other “Skinny”. I thought that was a term UN Peacekeepers used to identify, possibly to denigrate, the Somali natives, as they did in Black Hawk Down. Of course they’re skinny, a lot of them are starving. But it could stem from their natural body type, with a tendency to be tall, lean and rangy. I don’t know which came first or who picked it up from whom.) We’re given a short scene on the beach as crews are chosen for this mission, where it’s made clear just how cutthroat the pirate business is (and it is frequently referred to as “just business” throughout the film) and that there isn’t really any honor among thieves. What is also immediately apparent is that there aren’t a lot of alternatives for these young men (and boys). This is also reiterated in a later scene, to great effect, by the pirate leader Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi in his first film).
Director Paul Greengrass, working from a script by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) in turn based on Phillips’ own memoir, has shaped his film into a tale of two captains, Phillips and Muse. Phillips is shown as stern, humorless and a taskmaster. (The real Phillips is apparently considered something of a tyrant by his actual crew, but this is a movie.) Muse might not be much back on land, but once he boards the Alabama, the oppressed becomes the oppressor. (And Abdi is brilliant. There is nothing cliché or one-note about his performance in which he compels us to understand why he feels he has no choice, every step of the way, even when it appears he’s being given an “out” at several junctures.)
About half –way through the film goes from the expansiveness of the open sea and the massive ship, to the tiny and claustrophobic confines of an escape boat, ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. The passage of time is marked by a sunset or cutaway to the encroaching US Navy vessel in pursuit, so we know how long those people have been crammed into that tiny space. The hand-held camera work is very effective here. It’s literally “in your face”. The fear and desperation of the occupants is palpable. (I kept thinking about how bad it must have smelled in that cramped space.)
Tom Hanks is as strong as the embattled captain facing extraordinary circumstances, playing the kind of decent, hard-working, long-suffering everyman, as we have come to expect him to be. This is both an asset and a detriment. He is Tom Hanks the way that Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. He can never quite disappear any longer into any role. We feel we know him as a person, as much as we know him as an actor, and all of the tools of his trade. As Captain Phillips, Hanks does seem like an able seaman, running a tight ship, maintaining discipline and trying to keep his crew safe, but it is the scenes where he and Abdi go head to head that really crackle.
But Hanks, as good as he is at giving us clues as to what Phillips is thinking, often with just flicks of his eyes, is spectacular in his final scene. It is for this scene alone that he will almost certainly garner that Oscar nomination. It is something we have never seen from Hanks and it will shake you.
There are a lot of stories of survival winging their way to your multiplex this fall and winter, all gearing up for the big awards season push. A lot of them are real life to reel life as well. (Such is the case of Hanks other would-be awards contender, Saving Mr. Banks, although it’s not a survival tale.) Captain Phillips probably isn’t an automatic best picture contender like some of the others (including Gravity and 12 Years a Slave), but it’s a thrilling two plus hours at the movies.
I do, however, have a small bone to pick with you, Mr. Spacey, and all of the other producers. After having seen the film at a 5:30pm showing on opening night, having taken the profound and often frightening journey with my fellow movie-goers in a darkened theater, twisting my napkins to shreds, my pulse pounding in my ears as I watched the fate of the titular Captain and his captors play out in vivid Technicolor in front of me…all the while listening to the woman a few rows back trying to silence her small child, I have to ask,“Why wasn’t your film rated “R”?
Do you really believe that the intense and harrowing emotional and sometimes physical torture that Tom Hanks endured is appropriate for children? Is it appropriate for them to watch terrified people with guns to their heads in fear for their lives? “But it was rated PG-13,” you might well respond. “It’s up to the parents (or guardians) to make decisions about what is appropriate for their individual child. ” Ah, but there’s the rub!
Any movie not rated “R” is fair game and open season. Yes, a designation of PG-13 should tell a parent (or responsible adult) that they need to use caution, that there might be imagery that a young child shouldn’t see. (Just as there are now ratings on television programs that should provide guidance.) But there will always be those parents who think a movie ticket is cheaper than a babysitter and so bring the kid along. There are also older teens who will bring younger children with them as well. It’s not as if employees of a theater have anything to say about it. “They can do that with an “R” as well”, you counter. “It’s hard enough to get them to enforce an “R” rating.” That’s very true. But it might, actually SHOULD give more of them pause. An”R” rating is a much clearer line in the sand.
In the audience with which I saw your movie was at least one small child. I have two issues with this, the first being that the subject matter is inappropriate. Now, on paper, one could describe your movie as having no inappropriate language and minimal violence and no onscreen bloodshed. (I’ll leave it at that, lest I spoil anything.) But even though that argument would be merely splitting hairs, that in and of itself, as concerns that kid is not my problem. If the kid gets nightmares and keeps that parent up all night, too bad and it’s their own fault. The second issue, however, is that there is little or nothing in this movie to hold the attention of a six or seven year old. What do six or seven year olds do when they are bored? They make sure everyone knows it. While that might not directly be your problem, it was mine. And I bought a full priced ticket. I was on the verge, on at least two occasions, of getting up and asking for my money back. As it is, I’ll want to see it again so that I can concentrate fully.
Was that your dastardly plan all along? That I buy not one ticket, but two? Too bad. I’ll probably wait for cable.
Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky, directed by Paul Greengrass from a screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty, is in US theaters now.
NOTE: I thought I had posted this over a week ago (It was saved in drafts – D’oh!). In case anyone has forgotten (or never heard about) the actual incident depicted in the movie Captain Phillips, which took place in 2009, as I post this today, I’ve just gotten an email containing a breaking news report of an incident involving the kidnapping of Americans by pirates off the coast of Nigeria. Apparently the threat is still very real.