Thomas Wictor

A shockingly good movie about terrorism

A shockingly good movie about terrorism

I haven’t gone to a theater since 2002. The last time was when my brother Tim and I saw the Mel Gibson movie Signs, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Though the film was awful, the audience was unspeakable. Everybody talked at the tops of their voices—to each other, to the movie, and to people on the other ends of their cellphones. One would go down to the exit and shout back to his girlfriend, “Whattaya want? A hot dog? Ya wanna hot dog? How about popcorn? Ya want popcorn too?” I therefore stopped going to theaters and reading movie reviews. You may not know this, but reviewers are bought off. So I’m very pleased to report that last night I saw an exceptional movie about terrorism: Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks.

It’s the story of the attempted hijacking by Somali pirates of the container ship MV Maersk Alabama off the Horn of Africa in 2009.

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Some people don’t consider piracy terrorism, but that’s a distinction without a difference. What makes Captain Phillips an exceptional film is that there’s no moral equivalence, no excuse making, and no preaching about the horrors of capitalism. The pirates are very bad men; they freely admit that they hijack ships simply because they want money.

The leader is played by the brilliant Barkhad Abdi, seen here with KTTV Fox 11 Good Day LA anchor Araksya Karapetyan.

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Abdi gives his character Abduwali Muse an enigmatic, knowing, sardonic, totally unreachable quality that’s terrifying. He makes halfhearted attempts to excuse his behavior, but Hanks shoots down all his rationalizations.

“You’re not fishermen,” Hanks snarls at him. The truth revealed, Abdi can only tell him to shut up.

For once Hollywood decided not to lecture us peons and instead just told a gripping story. The talent of screenwriter Billy Ray and director Paul Greengrass makes this a nail-biting experience even though we already know how the movie will end. Each character is fully fleshed out and real. There’s no condescension toward the black Somalis, nor is there any ambiguity about what has to be done to save the captain.

I avoided the film because I’m tired of Tom Hanks telling me how I need to live, I thought for sure it would be a sobfest about how the poor pirates were forced into hijacking ships, and I dreaded the scene of the fearless president with his spine of steel, giving the “Go” order. When I saw the DVD for sale, I bought it because I’m interested in the actual event. But I had no hopes whatsoever for the movie. Boy, was I wrong!

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My only criticism is that the pace of the beginning is too slow. We see Captain Phillips packing for his fateful trip and riding to the airport with his monosyllabic wife. What they should’ve done—and I say this as a complete nonentity whose opinion is worth a very small pile of cat litter—is cut back and forth between Captain Phillips in his home and a furious Somali warlord in his palatial digs, shouting about how the pirates hadn’t hijacked any ships for him lately. That way we would’ve known immediately what the story was going to be about, there would’ve been a nice contrast between the First and Third Worlds, and we wouldn’t have had to sit through the unbroken stream of banal husband-and-wife mumblings that begins the movie.

Aside from that very minor point, there’s nothing wrong with Captain Phillips. It’s a very courageous in this day and age in that it credits non-Caucasians with the ability to choose evil over good. The Somali pirates are witty, sadistically humorous, and utterly without morals. Tom Hanks is even allowed to tell the pirates that they’re disgraces. Nobody was afraid that they’d be called racist or Islamophobic, and as a result a great film was made.

I love the movie Black Hawk Down, despite its flaws. The characters and action make up for the haranguing monologues, schmaltz, and moral equivalence.

The book Black Hawk Down was written by Mark Bowden. It’s a phenomenal read and a spectacular achievement in that Bowden got normally secretive special operators to talk to him. The book—like the movie—is flawed by Bowden inserting his own biases every chance he gets. He also made me lose all respect for him prior to the 2003 Coalition invasion of Iraq.

I heard an interview with Bowden on the radio in which he said that military leaders were so embarrassed by the “defeat” of US troops in the Battle of Mogadishu that they simply swept it under the carpet and refused to address it or learn from it. As a result, Bowden said, US troops were not getting any training in military operations on urban terrain (MOUT). Bowden predicted that Americans would be slaughtered in the upcoming war with Iraq due to pigheaded commanders who were in denial.

Well, I was stunned to hear Bowden say this. It was well known at the time that the Los Angeles Police Department SWAT had extensively trained American troops in MOUT. As I predicted, in house-to-house fighting the Americans routed the Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, Saudis, Lebanese, and—believe it or not—Somalis who Saddam Hussein imported in order to replicate the defeat that Mark Bowden claimed had happened.

Somalis fought in pickup trucks with heavy machine guns or light cannons mounted in the beds.

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They’re called “technicals.” Because Saddam Hussein believed people like Mark Bowden, he thought he had a chance to defeat the Coalition just like in the movie Black Hawk Down. Somali and other militia attacked main battle tanks in Toyota pickups. Here’s what happened.

“They stand, they fight, sometimes they run when we engage them,” Brigadier-General John Kelly said.

“But often they run into our machine guns and we shoot them down like the morons they are.”

“They appear willing to die. We are trying our best to help them out in that endeavour,” he said…

The resistance was unco-ordinated, he said.

“There’s no shifting of forces … there are no reinforcements … there is no cohesion to the whole thing.”

Any rational military command would have surrendered by now, he said.

Think of all the lives lost because people who know better insist on broadcasting their idée fixe that the US military is stupid and incompetent. We see it in the news, in nonfiction, and fiction. That’s another thing so refreshing about Captain Phillips. The US military and its actions are presented without editorializing.

Even better, everyone who sees the movie will come away thinking, “You know what? I don’t think I want to mess with them.”

We used to be smart enough to understand that you keep the peace by becoming too formidable to fight. For some reason people got it into their heads that all conflict is the result of misunderstandings, and if we just find the right words, we can convince anyone to put down their weapons.

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