By William Wolf


One of the most riveting films in the long history of the New York Film Festival wowed September 27, 2013 opening night audiences at the two screenings in Alice Tully Hall needed to accommodate the crowds. “Captain Phillips,” an exiting thriller directed by Paul Greengrass and based on the true story of a hijacking by Somali pirates and the dramatic rescue of the ship and captain, maintained a state of tension as the saga unfolded skillfully and sped to its nail-biting climax. This year’s Festival continues through October 13.

The screenings were followed by a jam-packed after-party at the elegant Harvard Club, where drinks and food were served at generous buffets that included hors d’oeuvres, shrimp curry, roast beef, pasta, fried onions, mashed potatoes and assorted pastries. Film Society patrons, movie buffs and others had a chance to mingle, discuss the first-night film and upcoming selections scheduled in the Film Festival’s extensive programming. The lavish party began at 11 p.m. and lasted well into the night. Chartered buses provided transportation from Alice Tully to the Harvard Club.

At the opening ceremonies, The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chairman, Ann Tenenbaum, welcomed audience members and emphasized that the Festival, as in the beginning, remained dedicated to viewing film as art. Other speakers included Rose Kuo, Executive Director of the Film Society, and Kent Jones the new Director of Programming and Chair of the Selection Committee, who generously paid tribute to former Festival Director Richard Peña, who retired after 25 years of service.

Enthusiastically cheered were film director Greengrass, Richard Phillips, the real-life captain in the dramatized hijacking, who was introduced along with audience favorite Tom Hanks, who portrayed Phillips, and actors playing pirates. It was also pointed out that members of the actual rescue team were in the audience, triggering further applause.

The film, based on an account by Captain Phillips and scripted by Billy Ray, harks back to April, 2009, when the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship en route to Mombasa, Kenya, was daringly seized by a group of young pirates desperate to make money in impoverished Somalia. Defying attempts at rescue, they sped away in a motorized lifeboat with Captain Phillips as hostage. It became a no-win situation for the pirates, but possibly a fatal one for the captain.

Hanks gives one of his best performances as Phillips, who attempts to keep his cool and turn the situation around, but is abused and beaten and under constant threat of being shot to death by the increasingly desperate young men. As portrayed by novice actors Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman and Mahet M. Ali, recruited from the extensive Somali community in Minneapolis, the pirates can be viewed with partial sympathy because of their poor background even though they are the menacing force in the film and to be rooted against in relation to the plight of the captain and his crew.

The film gains from Director of Photography Barry Ackroyd’s first rate work and Christopher Rouse’s editing, attuned to Greengrass’s expert direction. Greengrass is best known for his accomplished “United 93” stemming from the 9/11 terrorist disaster, as well as “The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Bloody Sunday.” He has earned a reputation as a top action director, and he certainly upholds that position with “Captain Phillips.”

Tom Hanks, of course, has had an enviable career as an every-man kind of actor, who earns credibility on screen for whatever role he undertakes. Here we see him from the outset as a married man who says goodbye to his wife in routine fashion and heads out to sea to do his job. Then Hanks effectively demonstrates the resources of a veteran captain whose goal becomes to save his ship, his men—and himself.

One question the film does not address is why when venturing into pirate-infested waters there are no armed guards. My understanding is that port-entry rules forbid arriving with firearms. Therefore, although weapons in the hands of accompanying guards could have easily enabled blasting the pirates out of the water, such methods were not used on the Maersk Alabama.

The Festival, larger and more ambitious than in the past, includes a series of premieres from various countries, a major retrospective of work by Jean-Luc Godard, Emerging Artists selections, documentaries, revivals, special tributes to Cate Blanchett on October 2 and Ralph Fiennes on October 9, programs of shorts and other attractions. Further information can be found at Posted September 29, 2013.


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