October 24, 2013

Captain Phillips and All is lost

I don’t know enough about either, but it is still a no-brainer; I know which of the two movies I am going to see.

In the much hyped corner is ‘Captain Phillips’, billed as the true story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama pirate hijack, and which portrays the Captain- Tom Hanks in the movie- as the quintessential all- American hero. The problem is that too many of the crew say that Phillips is a villain instead, and that the ‘true’ screen story is actually riddled with lies. 

In the understated corner is ‘All is Lost’, a movie that has just one actor in its entire cast- Robert Redford- and which is shot completely on the water. He has no name in the movie, and he is the only visible human in the viewers’ sight throughout the film. The story is about a man whose boat hits a shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean (yep, the same one as with Phillips) and who tries to stay alive thereafter. I did not read too much about the movie and risk spoiling it for me. It will have no dialogues, I think. It also promises to be infinitely more interesting. 

To be fair, I had decided to avoid “Captain Phillips” like the plague anyway.  I dislike hype and hyped movies. (I walked out of the ‘Titanic’ less than halfway, and you don’t learn anything the second time you are kicked by a mule).  

Also, this sticks in my craw: the seaman that is taken hostage today is more likely to be Asian, not American, and movies like “Captain Phillips” do nothing except repeat Hollywood stereotypes while downplaying reality. I find it distasteful that- like in movies about the Vietnam war- there is an overdose of ‘white’ heroes when a sizeable number of combatants are actually of a less sale-able colour. Unlike Bollywood, Hollywood’s tinkering with the truth is usually very subtle, but it angers me anyway that the world’s perception of seamen, Somali piracy and the perception of who the victims and heroes really are is going to be determined by “Captain Phillips” from now on in. 

(Will anyone even remember Korean Captain Seog Hae-Gyun, who was awarded the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea in 2011 after pirates had taken over the ‘Samho Jewelry’? For six days he and his men fooled the pirates on board, zigzagging in the Indian Ocean, contaminating fuel and secretly communicating with the outside world, despite Seog Hae-Gyun having been beaten, legs and shoulder fractured. He was then shot four times when rescuers boarded the Jewelry, and was in a coma for a month after being transferred ashore. Now there’s a movie begging to be made.) 

To boot, “Captain Phillips” seems to promote the wrong hero. Amongst the numerous crew allegations against him- something that has created sufficient controversy in the US to enhance hopes of cash registers ringing loudly at the box office- are some that Phillips has directly or indirectly admitted to. For example, that he took the ship too close to Somalia despite repeated warnings on email. That he continued to hold a fire drill (changed to security drill in the movie) even as pirate boats approached the Alabama. That the media stories that claimed at the time- and now, in the movie- about his offering himself as a hostage to the pirates were actually lies. 

But there are other, equally serious allegations, about Phillips longstanding reputation for being arrogant and ignoring the numerous attacks on ships that had been reported in the same waters he was taking the Alabama into. Allegations that there were two attacks on the Alabama in eighteen hours, not one.  And that, as the pirates finally boarded, many of the crew decided to lock themselves in the engine room- a clear indication, if true, that the heroic Captain was not calling the shots on board anymore. A crewmember claims that Phillips had no real plan except to throw up his hands and surrender.

Chief Engineer Mike Perry seems to have been the hero out there, not Phillips. It was he who led the crew downstairs and locked them in. It was Perry who disabled the ship, then attacked the pirate-in-Chief and seized him, later trying to get the rest of the pirates to exchange the man for Phillips. The other heroes in my mind are the US naval men of Seal Team Six, who took out the pirates in the lifeboat leaving Phillips untouched. 

So pardon me if I seem underwhelmed by the Captain Phillips hype. 

I’d much rather watch ‘All is Lost.’ That seems to be more true to what a sailor’s life is all about- solitary, under pressure, sometimes battling to survive.  Then, it seems to be a thinking man’s movie; it promises to be understated and subtle, not melodramatic and obvious. It does not appear to be a movie where they can lie and get away with it. It is tough to lie to the ocean. 

“All is Lost” does not claim to be a true story, but I will bet that it will be more real than “Captain Phillips.” It will, I bet you, show the reality of life at sea more believably. The nationality of the protagonist will not matter, because all sailors will identify with him- this much I can tell without having seen it. It will also probably portray, to me, a truer and more authentic American hero; if we are lucky, a hero of the Hemmingway-isque mould.  It will tell us why true seamen treasure true solitude. 

And it will do so without all the drama I expect from ‘Captain Phillips.’   



Reid said...

Dear Manu,

Great post!

Agree wholeheartedly with doing a movie about Capt. Seog Hae-Gyun - there is a real hero who did whatever it took on behalf of his men. I learned in POW training, back in my military days, that it takes enormous courage to hold fast in such a situation, especially as time goes by. Physical and emotional fatigues becomes as much a factor as physical pain. Few men can face the cumulative pressure without compromise.

Who will write the script? And who will play the part? It would be a worthy project.


manu said...

Thanks, Reid.

Umm, who will play that hero? Dunno, but not Jackie Chan, please!!