The Red Turtle (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 20 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”

Genesis 2:18


When his raft is destroyed a 3rd time, the man discovers what has been preventing his escape from the island. (c) Sony Picture Classics

British-Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit’s first feature length animated film takes up the shipwreck starting point of Robinson Caruso and Castaway, but then forges its own path to a conclusion about survival and making a home. Based on their admiration of his widely admired two short films, Japan’s Studio Ghibli invited him to make a feature-length film, however he wanted to. They provided such excellent supporters as the studio’s Isao Takahata* and Hayao Miyazaki. (It would be fascinating to have been present during their interchanges.) This French-Belgian-Japanese production probably will appeal more to adults than children, due to its slow pace and almost total lack of dialogue, but there are enough elements, especially a gang of amusing crabs, that make this a good choice for a family outing.

We plunge into the middle of the action with an un-named mariner tossed about by huge waves, his ship apparently having sunk. He manages to swim to an island on which a forest of bamboo and fruit trees surround a bald mountain gently sloping upwards. Just about everywhere he goes, he is followed by the group of crabs. Indeed, it was one of these crawling up his trouser leg that had awakened him on the beach. They are not anthropomorphized, but they add a touch of whimsy to the proceedings.

Obviously longing for home, he dreams one night of a bridge leading away from the island. Then of a costumed string quartet playing on the beach at low tide. We knew he is Caucasian; now that he must be a European. He discovers edible fruit in the forest, and potable water in a pool located in the center of the island. The man builds a raft from the abundant supply of bamboo, using a small tree with thick foliage as his sail. Setting forth toward the open sea, he feels something from below bumping the vessel, but he is unable to discover what it is. Then with louder thumps, the unseen creature demolishes the raft. He starts over again. Same thing happens. The third time is no charm, but the man does learn what his nemesis is—a large red turtle. Back to shore again.

The mystery as to why the turtle opposes his leaving unfolds slowly. When the creature is washed ashore, the man vengefully flips it on its back, leaving it to slowly die of dehydration. But then it shapeshifts into a lovely red-headed maiden. The man no longer attempts to flee, the pair making do with the resources of the island to make a comfortable life for themselves, and the son they eventually produce. Not that their life is entirely an Eden: the boy falls into the same deep crevice with water at the bottom that the father had years earlier, but also manages to swim through a subterranean tunnel to rejoin his parents. And years later, a tsunami sweeps across the island, leaving us to wonder for a while if all the family members have survived. Many decades after the man had swum ashore the story ends in a bittersweet way, foreign to any Disney film.

The hand-drawn figures are simple, the animators spending more effort on the details of the jungle and sea. Those who delight in walking along a beach, or sitting while the sun rises or sets, will love the colors. The night scenes, of which there are many, are in black and white. In addition to the resplendent visual beauty, composer Laurent Perez Del Mar’s musical score enhances the action and makes one feel the beauty of woods, sky and sea. The effect of the music perhaps is heightened by the lack of any dialogue, the only discernable word being a “Hey,” uttered by the man early on when he is frustrated by his failure to leave the island. One might consider this Oscar-nominated film as a visual meditation of life and loss, ameliorated by unexpected companionship.

*Mr. Takahata directed my favorite anime’ film, the haunting Grave of the Fireflies, about an orphaned Japanese brother and little sister, bombed out and living on the streets of Kobe near the end of WW 2. I see that my review, published in another magazine many years ago has been lost, so I’ll have to rewrite it, this being a wonderful film that should be widely known.

This review with a set of questions will be in the March 2017 issue of VP.

Moana (2016)

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.

Judges 4:4-5

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the mighty waters…

Psalm 107:23

Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.

1 Corinthians 16:13


A delightful sea adventure for young & old! (c) IFC Films

 The Disney folk have done it again, adding another strong female to their long list of young women who are as strong as any of the males who seek their hands. And the latter theme does not even figure in this Polynesian tale about a young daughter of a chieftain who recovers her tribal heritage and sets forth on a dangerous quest. This film is so good that it is no wonder that it was the box office leader on its weekend opening.

The film begins with Gramma Tala (voiced by Rachel House) telling a story to a group of children, her tale appearing on an animated tapa cloth. The green goddess Te Fiti lays down on her side, forming a lush island. At the center is her heart, a green spiral-shaped stone, that gives out the force of life. Men seek its life-giving power for themselves, but it is the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a shape-shifting trickster, who succeeds by using his large fishing hook to pry it out of her slumbering body. The island starts to crumble. Using his shape-shifting powers, Maui reaches his ship but is attacked by the lava monster Te Ka, who also wants the heart. Maui, the heart, and his hook fall into the sea, the latter two lost. For the next thousand years Te Ka continues to ravage the sea, swallowing islands and fish. One day, Gamma says, a hero will venture forth beyond their island’s reef to restore the heart and save humanity. Listening raptly is little Moana, but before Gamma can say more, her son, and Moana’s father, Chief Tui Ttemuera Morrison) tells the children that the island’s most important rule is never to venture beyond the reef because of the great danger.

Little Moana loves to play by the shore, and one day while helping a small sea turtle return safely to the sea, the water draws back from her. She sees a trail of lovely sea shells and begins to gather them in her arms. A wave pauses above her head, and she plays with it. Spotting a shiny green stone shaped like a spiral, she picks it up. Just then her father anxiously calls to her from the shore. The wave picks her up and deposits her by her father, but she has dropped the green stone back in the water. Chief Tui lectures her never to enter the water again. However, by now it is obvious that she has been called, chosen by the ocean for a destiny that will lead beyond the barrier reef.

Jump ahead to the day when her Chief Tui leads the now sixteen-year-old Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) up to the peak of the tallest mountain and tells her that one day she will add her flat stone to the stack laid by himself and previous chiefs. At a night time ceremony, she is given a symbolic battle axe. During the years, she has ventured to the shore, longing to go beyond the reef, but each time her parents have intervened. Gramma Tala encourages her to follow her inner voice. The girl’s longings are beautifully expressed by her song “How Far I’ll Go.”

Moana as future chieftain gives advice to the villagers, who are concerned that the fish are disappearing from the lagoon and that some of the coconut trees are infected by a blight. Everyone is worried about the coming loss of their food sources. Gramma takes Moana to a cave, it’s mouth covered by stones. Removing enough stones to venture in, Gramma encourages her granddaughter to go in by herself. The passageway leads to an inner pool of the lagoon, concealed by a waterfall. The girl is surprised to discover a small fleet of large sea-going canoes, and from the pictographs on one, learns that her descendants were great ocean navigators.

Thus begins the brave girl’s quest, her sole companion being her addle-brained pet chicken Heihei. Soon she links up with boastful Maui, who is so self-deluded that at first he thinks she is one of his fans. (See his arrogance expressed in his song “You Are Welcome.” When she reveals why she has sought him out, he is anything but eager to set out on the quest, having failed so miserably the first time. He throws her overboard, but each time the ocean deposits her back on the deck of the outrigger.

Of course, he finally agrees, and there follows a series of struggles against various opponents, including vessels of cocanut like creatures, a giant singing crab, and the lava god Te Ka when they reach the island. Eventually Moana has to contend with the lava god alone (for a brief period) due to Maui’s becoming disheartened over a defeat. I love the denouement, one that involves courage and pluck rather than violence.

This ending in itself makes the film worth seeing, though regardless, the beautiful art, drawing on Polynesian art, is at times breath-taking. I have loved the long line of Disney heroines—that have included Belle (Beauty & the Beast), Esmerelda (Hunchback of Notre Dame), Mulam (Mulan), the sisters in Frozen, and more—which can serve as worthy role models for our daughters. Even if you do not have any children you can gather together, go see this film for the beauty of its arts and songs, and the inspiration to venture forth rather than to play it safe

This review with a set of questions will be in the Dec. 2016 issue of VP.

The Finest Hours (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.

Psalm 89:9

…he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled.

He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy…

Titus 1:7b-9a


4 brave Coast Guardsmen set out in a 36-foot boat to rescue the remaining crew of a tanker broken in half.                        (c) 2015 Walt Disney Studios

Director Craig Gillespie (helmer of one of my favorite films Lars and the Real Girl) new movie, adapted from a book by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, is based on real events that transpired off Cape Cod in February 1952, culminating in what has been called the greatest rescue ever made by the U.S. Coastguard. It begins in November 1951 in Chatham, Mass as a romantic story. Shy Coast Guard sailor Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) meets in a café for the first time Miriam (Grainger), the telephone switchboard operator with whom he has been talking for several weeks on the phone. Jump to February 1952 when, while on a date at a dance hall, Miriam proposes to him. However, before Bernie can ask his Commander, Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) at the Wellfleet Coast Guard station, for permission to marry a Nor’Easter has blown in. It is huge, like that in The Perfect Storm, so the anxious and inexperienced Commander, not allowing Webber even to voice his question, orders him instead to select a crew to tie down the boats moored nearby.

Out at sea aboard the old oil tanker Pendleton its chief engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) is extremely worried about the new welds of the ship. He can hear them humming, which suggests trouble ahead. He asks for permission from the captain to reduce their speed, and thus lessen the strain on the ship. Twice the captain refuses, and very soon the buffeting of the 70-foot towering waves splits the ship in two. The forward part with the captain and other crew members quickly sinks, whereas the stern portion remains afloat, but for how long?

Back at the Coast Guard station reports have come in of two ships breaking in apart, an unheard of occurrence in one day. Although one of the ships is closer to Wellfleet, it is still considered too far and the sea way too dangerous to attempt a rescue. Then one of the local fishermen, while out and about on the road hears a ship’s horn and catches a glimpse of the ship. His report is debated as to whether or not it is credible, but the Commander feels duty-bound to send out a rescue team despite the raging storm, so he orders Webber to choose three volunteers for the mission.

The locals, especially the seasoned fishermen, question among themselves the Commander’s decision because he is an outsider whom they believe does not know the local waters well. Trying to sail beyond the sandbar just beneath the outlet of their harbor would be suicide because of the multiple towering waves created by the bar and the wind. Others had died in the attempt when their boat was flipped clear over. The stoic Webber tells a couple of them, “It’s the Coast Guard. They say you gotta go out. They don’t say you gotta come back.” The worried Miriam, failing to reach her lover by phone, jumps into her car and drives through the storm to find out what is happening at the station.

As the exciting action unfolded (suspenseful even though we know the rescue was successful), I came to perceive that the twin segments depicting Webber and his men and that of Sybert and his surviving crew members are two stories about leadership and the qualities it requires for good results. Hence my citation above of the apostle Paul or one of his associates concerning the criteria for leadership in the church. The Scripture is about those needed by a man (remember the originally egalitarian church was patriarchal by this time) to become a bishop. In our film it is that of sailors needed to head up a mission, one of rescue, and the other of survival.

Had there been time for reflection, neither man would have been first choice to lead their fellow sailors. The locals considered the shy Webber “a good man,” but hardly a leader. One even taunts him as less than a man because his girl had initiated the proposal of marriage. However, because of his rank, the Commander sends Webber to select the rescue boat crew. Sybert was actually unpopular with his crewmates. At first they were about to follow the demands of the loudest of the lot, D.A. Brown (Michael Raymond-James) who was yelling that they must climb immediately into the lifeboats before the stern sinks. Fortunately one of the older members, knowing and respecting the engineer, is able to get the men to listen to Sybert. The scene in which the latter captures their attention by peeling a hard-boiled egg while explaining their situation is priceless.

Both men remain calm, partly because they are confident in their skills. Webber could have followed the advice of an old fisherman concerned for his welfare—sail around the roiled waters of the inner harbor for a while and then return and say you got lost. However, a man of integrity, Webber refuses to do that because of the oath he had taken to guard and protect. (One of his men also suggest this.) Webber knows the waters and is able to switch speeds at just the right moment when they pass over the sandbar at the harbor’s entrance. Their boat is almost caught up and capsized by the series of huge waves, but he manages to pilot it through into the outer sea, much to the relief of the other three sailors.

On the Pendleton Sybert quietly explains to his fellow crewman the three choices they have. Launch the lifeboat and be drowned almost immediately. Stay with the stern and wait for rescue, even though they have no radio to alert others of their location. Or rig a tiller and try to run the stern aground the shoals that must lie off the coast. This latter would be difficult and risky, but it would buy them more time. He estimates that it will be 4 or 5 hours until the water rises in the ship high enough to shut down their motors, thus robbing the pumps of power. When at one point a while later it looks like the men will try to lower the lifeboat, Sybert rushes up, hatchet in hand, and chops the ropes attached to the small craft before anyone can climb in. Falling into the sea it is immediately hit by a large wave that dashes it to smithereens, thus confirming his warning. Accepting the engineer’s leadership despite the objections of the loudmouth, the men scurry about to perform their assigned tasks.

Each crew faces terrible obstacles. The rescue boat is so small (36 feet) that as they boarded it the volunteer who had been serving on a lightship sees it and plaintively says, “Please tell me we’re taking that boat to a bigger boat.” But they are not, and so at times the small craft is so engulfed by what are truly mountainous waves that it is submerged like a submarine. To make matters worse they lose their compass. How are they to locate the stricken vessel without it? The crew wants to turn back from what everyone ashore had called a “suicide mission.” Concerned about the men aboard the tanker, Webber refuses.

Aboard the Pendleton various crises arise, such as the impact of a wave that breaks their jury-rigged tiller. Refusing to give in to despair, Sybert leads the efforts to repair things and staunch the leaks. The fearful men go about their tasks, as well as offering up prayers. They keep sounding the ship’s horn in the hope that it will be heard.

After considerable up and down buffeting by wind and waves, Webber catches the sound of the tanker’s horn. Ordering their search light turned on, they are amazed to see that the stricken tanker is aground just a few hundred yards from them. They call it luck, but people of faith will regard it as more than that. But time is short because the powerful wind and waves are gradually moving the vessel off the shoal. Gazing up at rails, the rescuers are taken aback by the number of stranded sailors—over 30 of them—and the small size of their boat. As one by one the men climb down a portable ladder and drop—some into the sea itself and others caught by the arms of two of the Coast Guardsmen—the Coast Guardsmen become concerned that the rescue craft is too small to accommodate everyone. Leave while they can and then return for the remaining ones, Webber is advised. It’s then we hear his refusal contained in the trailer, “We all live or we all die.” One other leadership quality I should mention that we see in both men: they do not deny or cover up their fear, but they push it into the background as they deal with each new crisis that arises.

Bolstered by great special effects that convey effectively the immense power of the storm, as well as by a talented ensemble cast, the film is a rip roaring sea adventure, as well as a film that could be used to teach leadership. Chris Pine as Webber and Casey Affeck both show well the quiet, unassuming demeanor of ordinary guys rising to greatness when circumstances demand it.

The script by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, moves back and forth not only between the rescuers and rescued, but also involves Miriam ashore rushing to the station for news of her fiancé; ordered out by the Commander because of her demands; and interacting with a sailor’s wife who picks her up after her car becomes stuck in a snow drift. One wonders how much of this was added for dramatic interest, but it soon becomes an important part of the story when the storm knocks out the region’s electrical power. What happens next, vital to the rescuers finding their way home is as stirring for me as that scene in Rocky when our hero at last runs up the steps of the Art Institute and faces the city and the rising sun in triumph. If you are not noticing a tear or too and a lump in your throat at that moment, then you are, in Cool Hand Luke’s phrase, “A hard case.”

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2015 issue of VP.

All Is Lost (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

Our advisories: Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.

Star rating (1-5): 4

 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.

            Psalm 69.2

 Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small,
It cannot be that any happy fate,
Will me befall,
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me,
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.

            1st stanza of Bretony Fisherman’s Prayer*


A man battles for his life against the implacable sea and the storms that whip it into a frenzy.
(c) Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions Feature Film

What a contrast director J. C. Chandor’s film proved to be after my having rushed from a theater down the hall where I had endured the seemingly endless loud music and improbable heroics of the muscular Thor just 5 minutes before! In this film there is just one man, almost no dialogue, and a “set” that consists of a yacht, and then a covered lifeboat—and of course, the Indian Ocean. There is no back-story or flashbacks, no narration, and thus no subplots, just this simple story of an inventive man struggling to survive the sinking of his 39-foot yacht on which he was the sole person. We should add that the musical score, with a simple, haunting melody by Alex Ebert, contributes greatly to its impact.

At the beginning of the movie we hear a brief statement that includes, “I’m sorry. I tried. All is lost here except for body and soul,” obviously written by a man who has given up the struggle for survival. Then we are taken back eight days, during the latter part of which we see him write this note and place it in a jar in the forlorn hope that someone someday, somehow would find and read it. We are not told his name, just “Our Man” (Robert Redford) in the credits. On the first of those eight days Our Man wakes up when there is a bump and some noise. He discovers that his Virginia Jean has run into a large cargo container that somehow has fallen off a ship. There are already several inches of water on the floor, and more pouring through the large hole that the edge of the container had gashed into the hull of his yacht. He manages to place a crude patch over the large hole and to whittle the end of a pole so that it will serve as the handle for his pump, thus his being able to dispose of the seawater swishing around his ankles.

He dries out his radio, climbs the tall mast to reconnect a plug, and utters virtually all of the spoken dialogue in the film “This is the Virginia Jean with an SOS call. Over.” Actually, this qualifies as monologue, as there is no response. Just silence, punctuated by the sound of the wind. He is truly alone hundreds of miles from land. Opening the survival kit he finds a sextant, a manual on how to use it, and nautical maps on which he charts his progress. Everything he does is a struggle, but he shows little emotion, and says nothing—quite different from Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway.

The arrival of a storm proves to be the most dangerous of the many problems confronting him. The Virginia Jean is tossed about by the wind and waves like a toy, the boat being turned upside down a couple of times, throwing Our Man around like a doll. Quite a jolt to look out the cabin window and see, not sky but the waters of the deep! More water leaks in, so that when the storm passes, it becomes obvious that the vessel will not be able to stay afloat much longer. Thus he launches the life raft, much like the one in Captain Phillips in that it has a protective cover. He tethers the raft to the vessel and, over the next day or two transfers some supplies.

Our man has displayed a stoicism worthy of the originators of that philosophy. However, when he discovers that his large plastic jug of drinking water has been contaminated, he does become so frustrated that he cries out aloud the swear word that, had he said it twice, might have earned the film an R rating. Thanks to the survival manual, he does devise an ingenious method of obtaining water by use of the sun’s heat, a clear plastic sheet stretched over the cut-away jug, and a cup placed right under the sheet to collect the moisture that condenses. This produces just a few swallows at a time, but it keeps him alive, along with his cans of beans.

He uses the fishing tackle from the survival kit, but when he is about to pull in his catch, a shark suddenly rises up and snatches it away. An underwater shot looking up shows a dozen or more of these creatures circling about the raft. This is one in a series of events, including another storm tossing and turning over the raft, that eat away at his spirit.

Each day he takes a sighting with the sextant, noting his position on his nautical map. The current and winds are driving him a little farther north each day. Adding to his frustration is the failure of cargo vessels to spot him, even when he sends up signal flares. The first comes within a hundred yards or so, passing him by with no notice. The second almost rams him while he is sleeping, waking him up as it too passes by. Later when he spots the lights of a plane at night he takes an extreme measure, so desperate is he that it appears to be suicidal.

Our Man, so taciturn that his only spontaneous outcry is the “F” word, never utters a “fox hole prayer,” so secularized is he. He faces his impending death with the courage of a stoic who has done everything possible to preserve his life. While admirable, he is hardly the example that people of faith would point to as a model for dealing with death. Compared to such a person as Francis of Assisi, who during his last painful days spoke of “Sister Death,” his is a pitiable plight. (In the questions that follow we offer the possibility of using the film for a discussion of the subject so dreaded by a great many people, that of death, and of our own in particular.) Nonetheless, we admire both his inventiveness and his courage, and we leave the theater with a profound respect, for both the screen character and the great performance of Robert Redford. The Sun Dance founder demonstrates that even in advanced middle age he can still command the screen.

*The whole poem is available, along with Rembrandt’s painting “Storm at the Sea of Galilee” at

The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the December issue of Visual Parables, which will be available late in November.

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.