Master and Commander (2003)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hr 18 min.

  Our content rating (1-10): Violence 7; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (0-5): 4

 Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread of them: for it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

            Deuteronomy 31:6


Lots of adventure with Capt. Aubrey to lead us through    (c) 2003 20th Century Fox

 Director Peter Weir, who also co-wrote (with John Collee) the screenplay, has given us one of the finest depictions of life aboard a 19th century British naval vessel that we are ever likely to see. Based on the first and the tenth novel set during the Napoleonic era by Patrick O’Brian, the action ranges far and wide, from the coast of Brazil, around stormy Cape Horn, to the vicinity of the Galapagos Islands. Led by Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), dubbed (in an earlier novel) “Lucky Jack,” the men adore their leader. Paul Bettany is Aubrey’s best friend and ship surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin. Although the two are polar opposites in many ways, Aubrey being an action-oriented natural born leader and Maturin an introspective scientist wishing that his friend would light in one spot long enough so that he can study local plant and animal life, the two have bonded together, their relationship well symbolized by their late night concerts, Jack sawing away at the violin and Stephen the cello.

In pursuit of the French warship the Acheron, Captain Aubrey is under orders to “sink her, burn her or take her as a prize.” Easier said than done, his own 27-gun H.M.S. Surprise being both slower and out-gunned by the larger French vessel. When the enemy suddenly appears out of a fog, the Surprise is heavily damaged, with many of the crew dead or badly injured. By all rights Aubrey should head for port and repairs, but decides instead to make repairs at sea and keep sailing in the wake of the Acheron and a hoped for second engagement. During this pursuit his friendship becomes strained, the doctor fearing that Aubrey’s pride, rather than sound military sense, is driving him on at great risk to crew and ship.

The many details of life, 197 men crammed into the cramped nooks and crannies of a ship a little under 200 feet in length, are well depicted. From their daily scrubbing of the decks to the drills of the gun crews, the sewing of sails and clothes, the occasional singing and dancing, and the serving of meals—the crew crowded around a table, while above, the officers dining in more style while listening to Aubrey admiringly describe the man he served under, and admires most, Lord Horatio Nelson.

Thus Peter Weir’s film almost takes us into the past, enabling us to enjoy some of its splendor and to recoil at the brutality of close quarter fighting at sea. Dr. Maturin has little place in his rationally conceived universe for a personal God, nor, apparently, does Aubrey, who as Captain must consign to the sea the bodies of more of his men than he would like. The purpose of his mission leaves little room for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. He neither asks nor gives quarter while the fighting lasts, but afterward shows concern for both his men and his enemies. Although not emphasized as much as in the novel, Aubrey is a stickler for putting his gun crews through their drills so that they will be ready or action. The Royal navy superiors are very stingy in their issuance of powder and shot, so the Captain uses his own money to buy extra supplies for his cannons.

This is a film that must be seen on a large screen for the fullest appreciation of its grandeur and the careful workmanship of the filmmakers.

Captain Phillips (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 2; Sex-Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 5


Capt. Phillips pleads for the life of his ship’s mate.
(c) 2013 Columbia Pictures

 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.

Psalm 31.2

“Based on a true story,” director Paul Greengrass’s film starts out calmly, but soon has us leaning forward as the suspense increases with the taut action. Screenwriter Billy Ray’s adaptation of the book by Richard Phillips and Stephen Talty, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea, is guaranteed to hold your interest, even though you know the ultimate outcome already. It is the battle of wits between two determined men that distinguishes this at-sea thriller.

Mr. Greenglass has said he wanted to make more than just a thriller, but also show the contrast between the haves and have-nots, To a limited degree he does at the beginning: we see Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) on an April day in 2009 leaving a comfortable Vermont home with his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) to go to the Burlington airport where he will take a plane to Oman to join his ship and crew. On the coast of Somalia Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a thin man clad in worn clothing, looks over a gang of Somalis eager to be chosen for his crew of pirates. He in turn is under orders from a local warlord to capture something big. Later, in a brief conversation with Phillips, Muse will explain that he switched from fishing to piracy because non-Africans had over-fished his home waters. There are virtually no legal jobs available in the failed country’s slack economy–according to a 2012 UN Development Programme the unemployment rate for men between the ages of 15 and 64 is 54%, and that for youth 14 to 29 is 67%!

In the Oman port Captain Phillips inspects his American-owned ship, a cargo container, The Maersk Alabama, and then puts out to sea, bound for Mombasa, Kenya. The ship is transporting 2400 tons of cargo, including relief supplies of food and medicines. The captain briefs his crew about the danger of the area they will traverse, about two hundred miles off the Somali coast, and puts them through a practice drill. This soon turns into the real thing when on their radar screen Phillips sees two blips heading toward them. The blips are two motorized skiffs launched from a decrepit trawler serving as the mother ship. As they speed along, the small craft are soon visible through binoculars. The chase over the next few hours is not as speedy as the careening car chases of fictional thrillers, but it is just as suspenseful, with the unarmed merchantmen at first fending off their attackers with their fire hoses. The little boats almost capsize in the large waves created by the ship, so the worried leader in one of them turns back. Muse gives up only when the old motor of his boat breaks down.

With the motor repaired back on their mother ship, Muse resumes the chase the next day, this time succeeding in boarding their prey. Capt. Phillips has ordered the crew to hide in the engine room, so he and his bridge crew wait for the arrival of their captors. The machine gun toting pirates shoot away the various locks of the doors and rush in. Muse, the only pirate speaking English, says, “Captain, relax, nobody gets hurt. No Al Qaeda here. Just business.” Thus begins the battle of wits between the older Phillips and the ex-fisherman. Keeping his calm, the Captain tries several ruses, and at one point the crew members in the engine room manage to seize one of the pirates when his bare-footed companion steps on the glass shards they have spread before the doorway and he has to retreat to the bridge for medical age. Also, Captain Phillips tries to get Muse to settle for the $30,000 stored in the safe, but the pirate refuses. The ship, cargo, and lives of the crew are worth millions, and he will settle for nothing less because he knows his warlord will punish him severely if he accepts such a paltry offer.

In all the scenes the brilliance of Tom Hanks is matched by that of the nonprofessional Barkhad Abdi, leader of the group. His looks and his voice convince us that he would do anything to get what he is after. Also quite good are the other non-professional actors, Faysal Ahmed as the hot-headed Najee, and Barkhad Abdirahman as Bilal who is the nervous driver of the enclosed lifeboat in which they hope to make it back to their home with Phillips as their hostage. (The three actors were found among the large Somali population in Minnesota.)

Compared to the sequences shot on the huge 500+ foot Alabama, those filmed in the confined space of the lifeboat are claustrophobic inducing. Muse has had to contend not only with the various lies and ruses of Captain Phillips, but the also with the aggressive Najee, who shouts and screams, often questioning his leader’s acts. The latter almost loses control of himself when a US Navy destroyer and helicopters show up.

There follows the tense negotiations with the military, the Naval captain under orders not to allow the lifeboat to reach Somalia. Captain Phillips complicates matters for his captors by managing to dive overboard. Even though he is recaptured, this no doubt affects Muse as he argues with Najee whether or not to trust the Naval negotiator who has told them that the elders of his village are aboard and want to meet with him. The intense ending induces feelings of relief mixed with sadness. Anyone with half a heart will have begun to extend at least a small measure of sympathy to the villains because the film has made it clear that they too are victims of a worldwide system of haves and have-nots. They are not the cardboard faceless stooges that audiences cheer the death of in the usual thriller. Surly there was rejoicing in heaven over the release from captivity of the American, but also there must have been some tears for those, who as Phillips in one of his pleas says (in effect, as I don’t recall the exact words), “You don’t have to die!”

As with another survival film Gravity, this film is a secular work apparently written and directed by two men who would not think of praying, even under duress. Their depiction of the Americans is understandable, with recent studies showing that up to 20% of Americans would answer a religion poll as “None of the above.” But the depiction of Somalis who do not mention the Prophet or Allah is not excusable. Of course, this is a minor qualm. What happened to Captain Phillips is not only extraordinary: he himself is extraordinary—from the calm way he handles himself on the ship trying to save the lives of his crew; to his sorrowful concern in the lifeboat that his captors were needlessly throwing their lives away; to the last scene when, safe aboard the destroyer, he lets out all the feelings he has held inside, this movie provides us with not only two hours plus of thrills, but an occasion to admire the resourcefulness of the human spirit.