Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks brings to every movie he makes a kind of sincerity that I love to watch. He’s been type-cast, that’s true and perhaps with some reason, but to say that he cannot or does not stretch himself is simply wrong. Hanks can act.

In his new film, Captain Phillips, Hanks brings a kind of understated seriousness to the true story of Captain Richard Phillips who was in command of the M/V Maersk Alabama when it was taken by pirates off the Somali Coast. Phillips was taken hostage in the rescue boat of the Alabama and after several excruciating and tense days, was rescued by the U.S. Navy Seals.

Hanks comes into his part rarely smiling. There’s a quality in the whole film of trouble-it appears the moment the story starts in Phillips’s house in Vermont as he prepares to fly off to Oman where he will board the Alabama, taking cargo to Mumbasa. His wife and he discuss the hard economic times the country is experiencing in 2009 and how their children will manage. It’s not a tense conversation, but it is a difficult one-a precursor to the very fact that tough times mean people make tough decisions.

Meanwhile, actor Barkhad Abdi portrays the captain of the small Somali pirate squad that eventually takes over the Maersk Alabama. Four men, led by Abdi’s Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, the leader of the small group, live in a Somali village bordering on anarchy. The poverty of the place is a nightmare and the only way to earn bread for one’s family is to prove more ruthless than his neighbor. This painting of reality, brutal in its honesty is put forward without sentiment. It is what it is–they are who they are–and so the decision to board the Alabama and eventually take Phillips hostage isn’t reckless, it’s option A among a series of bad options. Abdi’s portrayal is so compelling that he too should be considered for an Oscar. “I’ve come too far,” Muse says at one point to Phillips aboard the rescue boat. “I can’t turn back now.”

The emblematic emptiness of the open sea, trapped inside a cramped and hot space is director Paul Greengrass’s triumph. Phillips, a trained cargo vessel captain, is at every moment looking for ways to take control of his own situation and while occasionally getting the upper hand, he is simply unable to overcome the odds stacked against him by four armed men aboard the rescue boat, even as he attempts to help the youngest who’s feet are badly injured from having stepped on glass aboard the Alabama.

Moments of the film are slow including the initial hours aboard the rescue boat where a great deal of give and take talking takes place. It probably didn’t need to be in there, but it’s also a chance to show the serious descending spiral of emotions and psychology among the pirate crew who simply have no choice but to challenge the world’s most powerful military. It’s in all of their eyes, Phillips’ too, that there is no way out of the situation.

The inescapable unease of understanding there are places in the world where people are forced into bad situations and outcomes can only be decided by threats and military action is enough for the audience to understand that control is an illusion. But Hanks deftly controls his own character through the chaos of harrowing and claustrophobic danger and provides a kind of earthy sympathy for all involved, without descending into sentiment for the criminal acts of the pirates.


Darryl Wagar

Darryl’s smile was infectious. He bounced when he walked and he never really seemed to stand still. He was always swaying or moving, pointing things out, describing what was going to happen next. Darryl had vision.

The only time I ever saw him frown was at a Pleasant Valley Recreation and Parks District Board meeting and it was because he was poring over numbers adding up some absurd amount trying to make sense of it all. He was the superintendent of parks there and he loved his work. Darryl passed away last Thursday from stomach cancer.

By the time we’d met, I was already writing extensively, nearly daily, for the Ventura County Star. During 2011, if I wasn’t their busiest freelancer, I was close to it. Coincidentally, the paper’s normal Camarillo beat reporter resigned and there were many things happening at the park district, so I volunteered often as I could to write about it. I got to know a lot of the people there and still count all of them as friends. I reported honestly and they appreciated that.

Darryl chased me down in a damp parking lot one night after I’d left a board meeting before it adjourned. He gave me his card and told me anytime I wanted to know more about the district or tour the parks in it, to give him a call. I don’t recall the reason I did call and take him up on it but the two of us spent a couple of hours together driving from park to park, even hiking into one of the parks that borders untamed brush and wild land. Darryl careened down one hill and picked out a plant at the bottom with seeds that tasted like licorice. I took my daughter there a few weeks later and allowed her to taste them. She was entranced by the idea that you could get licorice from a bush.

I spoke with Darryl about once a week for a few months in 2011 and afterward, about once a month until a year ago or so when the paper hired a full-time reporter on the Camarillo beat. I still kept in touch when I could, but not as much. We had a few things in common, he had more kids than I do, but both of us were about the same age and loved our work. Darryl talked excitedly about his family and enjoyed being a dad and a husband. I’ve never met his family, but I feel as though I should now.

Sadness isn’t a big enough word to encompass the losses we’ve sustained this year and Darryl’s is one more of those. I cannot say we were ever close friends, but I spent enough time with him to care about him and enjoy his company. It’s that theme again-the one that tells me to cherish the people we meet, whether they are work colleagues or good friends. Our time is not promised us.

The rest of those who have gone before us cannot steady the unrest of those to follow…


The Price of Infamy

I’m as likely as anyone to believe in the creativity of the American experiment, the American dream. I even have little bits of emotional strings that occasionally tug at me when I read histories of the Revolutionary era, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson. But it’s not all mythology and melancholy. Some of it is rooted and tethered to the firm belief that what we have gained in the past 50 years has, if not erased, then buried under the ineffable ruts of progress the slow steady growth of hope and even liberty.

No platitudes, though. No small fragments from Franklin or Madison. This is our time and we’ve made choices that have put us on a particular path. For whatever reason, our country lurched to the political left hard enough that the things we put into the world that were unique, individual liberty, innovation and progress are now all moving somehow backwards. Progress has slowed. In an era when technology moved decidedly in favor of giving individuals choices and opportunities, the people as a whole voted for collectivism and the slow steady movement of railroads over airliners.

I actually hate writing about politics here and in many ways, I’m a recovering politiholic, but I can’t help be struck not just by the unified grab of socialized medicine and the somehow newly generated idea that “free healthcare” is a right among industrialized countries, but the fettered, broken, nearly Soviet-era way in which the whole thing was launched. This massive golden idol that was the “centerpiece of this president’s legislative agenda” is not even a pig with lipstick. It’s a turd. And a giant one too big to go down any sewer with anything like alacrity. We’re stuck in its morass.

The new technology turns out to be pretty old technology that wasn’t even tested properly. The website that was to carry the ease with which people could sign up turns out to be insecure and dangerous and, more importantly, broken before it ever launched. Nevermind that the whole idea was to cover people who otherwise didn’t have insurance–but the idea that those people would somehow have laptops and wifi in their homes so they could get insurance was never questioned–and still isn’t. The thought that the government is going to insure people who, if you put them in front of a laptop, wouldn’t know how to access the healthcare they’re apparently going to get for free, doesn’t seem to have dawned on anyone.

Fallacy after fallacy, fault after fault, broken promise after broken promise and lie after lie have now firmly planted a piece of legislation in the American lap and it will not go away. It hasn’t really made life better for anyone, though we’re told if we just wait long enough, it will. If a company launched this way, all of the principles would now be sending out resumes and the news would be nothing more than a slight obituary: “We came. We saw. It didn’t work. Move on.” But this is the government and the government gets as many do-overs as our tax dollars will allow.

No one is embarrassed. No one has been fired. No one is explaining. The apologies are half-hearted and the fix is that there isn’t a fix.

For the record-fixing healthcare was never the issue and never will be. Healthcare is personal and individual and the only way to fix it is to ensure it stays that way. Solutions could have come from anywhere–up to and including simple things to drive down rates like allowing insurance companies to compete over state lines, while mandating that companies have to provide for pre-exisiting conditions. This could have been done by slapping a two percent tax on policies in each state. That money would go into a state pool, allowing people who could not other wise afford insurance to access it for a time, say three years or so. Health savings accounts could be established for those with the means to do so-and again, slap a two percent tax on each one and provide for those who cannot get or won’t get access. But these things would not allow political control, would not give power to any group. They would, however, empower the individual.

I got somehow lost in all of this. I’m barely affected, too–at least for now.  As a teacher, the very people for whom I work advocated and pushed for the passage of this broken new system–and yet, teachers unions have been given waivers and are not really affected by the ACA. My health care insurance has changed but little. And that’s the problem–we now live in a time when it’s perfectly acceptable to aid in the political process by making sure legislation passes making deep impacts on our fellow citizens, but openly ask for freedom from that very legislation as we believe it will not be good for us. That counts as “good politics.”

I confess–I’m a bit concerned about where all of this is heading.