A Box of Chocolates for Memorial Day

 

My first impression wasn’t good. Not much to praise about the opening dialogue between the main character and his wife, driving from home to the airport, just before he flies to his new assignment overseas. So stereotyped and banal I was appalled. A very insipid conversation on how times changed and how hard it became for young people to get into the work force, with endless candidates competing for one job position.

The only reason for that prologue to be there at all, I like to think, is because in real life – this movie is based on facts – the couple had that conversation on that specific morning, unaware of the tragedy looming ahead, in April 2009. Otherwise, I wished that dialogue could be cut off; the entire piece removed, leaving the scenes of them in the car framed by background music or highway traffic noise only, culminating with their arrival at the airport; the quick kiss and embrace the couple exchanged seen from a distance.

It got worse though. When the captain boards the mastodonic MAERSK cargo ship he would be taking from Salalah, Oman to Mombasa, Kenya, his exchange with first officer Shane is erratic, shallow, and one-dimensioned. I cringed, clinging on to memories of that remarkable actor in Cast Away, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, Road to Perdition, and my favorite of all, Forrest Gump. Or of a younger Hanks, happy and funny as in Big, The Man with One Red Shoe, Dragnet, The Money Pit. We all have seen what Tom Hanks can do and play cargo ship captain was simply not working; at least not in the first 20-30 minutes of Captain Phillips.

Whether Hanks was holding himself back until the right moment to come alive, I will never know. In contrast, the acting by a group of unknown actors – the Somali pirates – on the shores of their impoverished country the morning the local warlord recruits volunteers for the next job, was perfect. Heart-breaking perfect. You’ll hate them for what they’re just about to do, and you’ll admire them for their insane courage. Then you’ll pity them for the miserable life they live. Skinny fishermen (armed to their teeth, true), hijacking a giant cargo ship off small frail boats whose old engines barely ran, so mal-nourished and poorly clad, so ignorant and desperate for money; for any tiny bit of hope for their families’ future…

It’s a wealthy world from our point of view. No one should have to face the choices those young men – one of them couldn’t be older than 17 – did. I am not defending piracy, violence and crime. I am criticizing the incompetence of international organizations and the corruption of governments that fail to help people before they turn into the pirates in Captain Phillips.

As Phillips tells to one of his captors, he should have choices other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people. To what the pirate responds, Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America. And to America he ends up coming, in jail for the next 30 years. Better luck than his associates, killed by the Navy Seals in charge of rescuing Phillips.

The involvement of Washington and the Seals is a story apart as the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama was the first American cargo ship hijacked in two hundred years. I had forgotten how good it feels to watch a movie where the heroes are American. Where everything works as planned, each step of the process a success, lead by people whose hearts and minds are in the right place. They knew what they were doing; they had been trained, prepared; their strategy worked, their equipment worked, their knowledge was put to good use. There is no business like show business in America and there are no heroes like American heroes in movies – we just seem to have forgotten it as of lately.

Holding off his tremendous acting capacity or not, it’s when the pirates force him into the lifeboat that Tom Hanks’ talent explodes in the movie. As if at that very moment the actor had said to himself, ok, now I’m needed. Now I can work. Sadly, Hanks’ talent is evidenced by all the risks and dangers the Somali pirates subjected Phillips to for hours. No food, no water, no fresh air in the suffocating heat of the life boat; the yelling and the fighting among the pirates (human condition rarely descends so low in the movies) while I keep telling myself Phillips’ relatively controlled demeanor and calm cannot last much longer. He does go off when one of the pirates tears to pieces the note he is trying to write to his family and the captain pays dearly for losing his temper.

The acting by everyone in that claustrophobic lifeboat is so realistic it got me shivering; the perfect evening to start biting on my nails. Phillips is bleeding, he is in pain, and they tied up his hands and blindfolded him. The little lifeboat rocks like crazy in the wake created by the large US Navy vessel now – the seals cannot get a good look into it to shoot; they risk shooting Phillips as well. Fifteen agonizing minutes later, I’m no longer shaking; my eyes are tearing as the captain is examined by Navy Hospital Corpsman Danielle Albert (a real one by the way – not just someone pretending to be a Navy doc).

What makes a good movie good? What is the difference between a good movie and an excellent one? It makes you want to write about it. It makes you cry along with its heroes. Of course you never know that in the beginning… I didn’t think Captain Phillips would be one of those. As a very wise man named Forrest Gump once pointed, you’ll never know what you’ll get next. Life is a box of chocolates.

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