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By Tom Demerly.

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Captains Philips is tense and dramatic, with a sense of pacing and realism that holds you hostage.

Director Paul Greengrass has married the elements of realism, drama and film style to build a depiction of the 2009 pirate seizure of the U.S. flagged container ship Maersk Alabama off the East African coast that resulted in a high seas hostage crisis with its Captain, Richard Philips.

From the terse, abrupt opening pace that makes brilliant use of not showing Tom Hanks’ entire face as Captain Philips in any of the first scenes to the nervous dialogue, Greengrass speaks to the detachment and fear of America toward the boiling tensions of West Africa. The discussion of fears about terrorism and piracy are vague, nearly absent, like our own awareness and detachment from things that only happen “over there”.

The real container ship Maersk Alabama.

The real container ship Maersk Alabama.

Another masterful depiction is the Somali pirate camp and the pirates themselves.  Somali Barkhad Abdi is frighteningly authentic in the role of Muse, the lead pirate. He should be. Abdi is a Somali from Mogadishu who immigrated to the U.S. after being smuggled out of Somalia. He attended the University of Minnesota and answered an open casting call for Captain Philips that landed him and three of his friend roles as the pirates.

The scenes in Somalia are shot in a grainy sepia with shaky camera movements that suggest chaos and unrest. Pan back to the U.S. scenes shot in serenity and with a steady cam and you have a rich visual contrast. These visual elements play over a soundtrack that is large, dark and ominous. The strong score looms in the background then rises to build tension in key scenes. It is a subtle but effective use of the musical score.

Scenes of the pirate takedown of the Maersk Alabama are authentic and rife with real-world action. The supporting cast of the Maersk’s crew holds up the story with a more than adequate depiction of the tension during the boarding and their impressive mastery of the situation during the standoff. Pacing here is snappy and never gets bogged down.

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Barkhad Abdi is authentic in the role of the lead pirate. He should be, he is a Somali ex-pat who studied in the U.S.

The film transitions heavily once Captain Philips is taken hostage on the ship’s ocean going lifeboat. The desperation and hopelessness begins to erode the composure of everyone crammed into the little vessel. The open ocean scenes must have had significant cooperation from the U.S. Navy, especially when the U.S.S. Bainbridge and the U.S.S. Halyburton arrive on station. Few scenes are as inspiring as a U.S. Arleigh Burke class destroyer cutting a fast turn toward harm’s way.

The movie changes briskly to U.S. Navy SEALs parachuting into the ocean to board the Bainbridge and supervise the negotiation for the release of Capt Philips. Again, the depiction has a documentary feel to it and the action is tense and quick. A keen trick of the filmmaking was to build the pace consistently until the climax happens with a shock like quality that adds realism to an already eyewitness experience. It’s over before you know it.

The film ramps up the tension as Captain Philips is trapped aboard the lifeboat with the Somalis.

The film ramps up the tension as Captain Philips is trapped aboard the lifeboat with the Somalis.

Greengrass and Hanks save the best for last as the closing scene is a masterwork of acting by Tom Hanks. His depiction of Captain Philips back on the ship is so real it is disturbing to see.

Captain Philips is a great film and a very capable record of the events as reported in the Maersk Alabama piracy. We get an interesting look at the Naval Special Warfare sniper control system and what feels like an accurate depiction of the incident. It’s also good film craft made stronger by Tom Hanks’ typically great acting. In this role as Philips he is at his best ever. Add to this the authenticity of the Somali characters and the movie combines tense drama with documentary realism into a great film that is absolutely more than worthy of seeing.

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By Tom Demerly.

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It’s time to give you up.

The polo shirt is bad. It is dated and ugly. The polo shirt is a dreadful set of unsavory compromises that removes all that is good from its influences, the collared shirt and the t-shirt. It leaves only the fashion detritus of its origins. It needs to go away once and for all.

The polo shirt has become the default uniform of the panderer. It is silk screened and embroidered for groveling sales reps at trade shows, annoying, bushy tailed clerks in corporate mall stores and men and… God forbid, women who can’t decide if they are laid back enough for a t-shirt or need to put on an actual dress shirt.

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The polo shirt is the no-man’s land of the fashion world and like the unfortunate souls who made the term “no-man’s land” common in WWI, it needs to die an unsavory death between the trenches and never return. It is the uniform of the fence-sitter.

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No one aspires to wear a polo shirt except Rick Astley and pop-collar adolescent males in coastal regions who are a guidance system for a penis at frat parties. The sales reps that don them do so out of fashion ignorance or, for the few of them that know, a resignation that it is a kind of corporate retail uniform, a dreadful reality that customer service and selling things is still relegated to the dregs of the vocational spectrum.

Never put on a polo shirt.

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In utter distain for the polo Karl Lagerfeld may have gone too far, but then again, maybe not…

The polo shirt typifies everything that is bad about compromise. It is not attractive, functional or comfortable. Most of all it makes the statement that the wearer is entrenched firmly in the most ghastly netherworld of compromise: The pus-colored middle ground. The pointless attempt to try to be all things to all people.

Sony’s chairman Akio Morita told Steve Jobs that after the war, no one had any clothes. So they wore uniforms; polo shirts.

Sony’s chairman Akio Morita told Steve Jobs that after the war, no one had any clothes. So they wore uniforms; polo shirts.

Forward thinking fashionistas know there is an alternative to the polo shirt. Look at Steve Jobs’ iconic black turtleneck. Look at Roy Halston’s attachment to the turtleneck, and look at Karl Lagerfeld’s pointed assault on the mamby-pamby with his operatic mega-collars that, I’ll respectfully suggest, are a male compensational accoutrement. They are, nonetheless, not a polo shirt.

Take a tip from Roy Halston: Slick your hair back, cut it off, flop it to the side but don't wear polo shirts.

Take a tip from Roy Halston: Slick your hair back, cut it off, flop it to the side but don’t wear polo shirts.

Pick a side people: Either put on a t-shirt, join the 21st century and wear a turtle neck or just get on with it and put on a real shirt with buttons. But God forbid, use the poor, unfortunate fabric demeaned to the pattern of the polo shirt for something else, like wiping a dipstick clean to check engine oil.

By Tom Demerly.

NOTE: This story is fiction based on news accounts. It does not contain factual depictions of any events from official sources.

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10:17 Local (15:17 UTC), Monday, 7 October 2013, Administrative Offices, Triple Five Group, Mall of the Americas, Bloomington, Minnesota, United States.

Bob Davis felt a chill race up his spine and down his arms. He saw his hands tremble on the desk in front of him. His ironic sense of humor kicked in when he thought, “Well, Bob, that’s why they call it terror-ism.” He looked at the two men sitting across from him, their mouths moving, but he didn’t hear the words for a second. He forced himself to tune back in to their meeting despite a feeling that this couldn’t be real. It was like walking onto the pages of a Clancy novel.

“…Possibly V-IED’s in the parking lots, ah, that means vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, a car or truck bomb, like Timothy McVeigh used on the Federal Building, if you recall… There could be some form of crude, locally produced chemical weapon; chlorine gas, something like that. Those have big shock value with the media.  There definitely will be explosives and assault weapons used. They can source that equipment locally and may already have from gun shows around the Midwest. We have agents from the Bureau and the ATF at those shows. Even the NRA people have been helping us, but we can’t catch everything.”

Bob Davis manages operations for the Mall of the Americas in Bloomington, Minnesota. Over the past eight years he has seen women give birth there, the most elaborate shoplifting schemes every devised (and busted), a ring of prostitutes operating in the mall and a coyote that somehow made its way inside the giant shopping center on a busy Saturday night. This was the first time he sat across his desk from two FBI agents getting briefed on plans for a possible Al Qaeda style suicide attack on his mall during Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in the busiest mall in the United States.

Davis was being briefed by the FBI about possible terrorist attacks at the Mall of the Americas two days after a pair of U.S. special operations raids, one in Libya, and one in Somalia. Sixteen days earlier Al Shabaab militants attacked the Westlake Mall, a U.S. style shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya. The FBI men told Davis it was a miracle only 67 people were killed in the Africa mall attack. Based on the damage to the mall, they felt the toll would have been higher. “Westlake was a test run for Al Shabaab. It was training for them, a field exercise. They won’t make the same mistakes twice.”

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The two FBI agents pulled up a file on their tablet computer. “Our estimates of casualties here at Mall of the America in a Black Friday attack are between 400 and 800 killed.”  Davis felt the grip of what an attack would mean. The country, the economy, Minnesota, his community, his tenants, his family, his job. He remembered the economic impact from the 9/11 attacks. He was 40 years old then, working for the Taubman Centers back in Michigan. They managed a large number of shopping malls around the U.S. The 9/11 terror attacks had gutted the company’s occupancy in the next five years when the economy tanked. And that hadn’t been a direct attack on a U.S. shopping center. What the FBI agents were describing to Davis now could sink the shopping mall industry in the United States.

“The real damage, though,” Continued the larger agent with the iPad, “will be the broader economic impact on U.S. business. Retail for the holiday season would be destroyed. Even the e-commerce guys, like Amazon.com, would take a hit since people would not only be afraid to shop at a mall, they would be afraid to shop, period, because of concern over another economic crash. This is the new 9/11. It really would be Black Friday”

Bill Davis had one question for the two FBI men, “So, what do we do to make sure this doesn’t happen?”

“Well,” The smaller of the two FBI men said, “We think we may have reduced the capabilities of the attackers to execute their previous plans, but we still need your cooperation here at Mall of the Americas, Mr. Davis.”

“I’m all ears guys.”

02:45 Local (23:45, 2 October UTC), Thursday, 3 October 2013, Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, Headquarters, Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).

Nine men were arrested in Africa following the Kenyan mall attack. It took a few days for… the authorities… to extract information from those nine men. Taken one at a time none of them provided anything that seemed of much use. But each minor detail they provided, from how they paid for their meals to how they learned to use their weapons, began to congeal into a pattern. When that pattern was fit against the sides of other patterns, now electronically in a basement in Langley, Virginia, there was a horrific conclusion: The U.S. was next.

Once that conclusion was reached the Director of National Intelligence was briefed. He briefed the President, a man deeply embroiled with a domestic political battle when Congress refused to approve economic changes forcing a shutdown of some government offices. The President and his staff were busy with, among other things, trying to manage the first ever White House online flaming campaign via e-mail and social media. Their target was Congress and their intent was to depict them as uncompromising and unreasonable. To his credit as Commander in Chief, when the briefing materials on the Nairobi attacks reached his desk, the President did not delay. He set the wheels in motion via Admiral William H. McRaven at MacDill AFB. McRaven is the ninth man to command the United States Special Operations Command at MacDill, a unified command that coordinates the training, equipment, doctrine and employment of all U.S. special operations units.

McRaven’s units include some of the most sophisticated military intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities in the world. These operate organically to the special operations community, from the field around the world back to MacDill, largely for the purposes of mission planning. The strategic intelligence may flow upward from McRaven’s units, or downward from Langley, but flow it did, in both directions. When the intelligence McRaven’s units had collected was collated with the information garnered from the West Lake Mall attack in Kenya the picture was crystal clear.

A big part of that picture pointed back to a beach house in the Somali coastal city of Barawa.

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Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, had been training local indigenous forces in the region.  They also collected intelligence from them during training. Both special operations and CIA operatives joined the activities related to Somalia at Camp Lemonnier to help with data collection and facilitate better, more context-based interpretation of intel. SPMAGTF Recon Marines had even conducted beach reconnaissance of some areas of the Barawa, Somalia coastline.  That hydrographic survey data, combined with signals intelligence, some limited HUMINT (human intelligence from operatives on the ground in the target area), satellite and drone images merged with data from the West Lake Mall detainee interviews.

Back at Camp Lemonnier, at MacDill AFB in Florida, on a ship off the coast of East Africa and in Langley, Virginia, planners held a web conference to review the final plans for a direct action mission to interdict the capability of Al Shabaab to carry out their planned U.S. mall attack.

It was Thursday night. The raid on Barawa was a “go”.

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03:50 Local (12:50 UTC), Saturday, 5 October 2013, 473 meters off the coast of Baraawe, Somalia.

High tide hit the rocky beach off Baraawe, Somalia at 04:38 hours under a dim, waxing crescent moon. Just before high tide the incoming tidal current urged the twelve combat swimmers of the Naval Special Warfare Combat Interdiction Group (formerly “SEAL Team 6 or “DEVGRU”) toward the rocky outcrops that lay just off the Somali coast. Swimming along the surface was easy; the black African waters were warm. High clouds filtered what little moonlight there was.

The assault team had left their F470 CRRC boats almost 2 miles off shore to prevent visual detection of the assault boats from land. The boats used sound suppressed motors that were extremely quiet. After dropping off the combat swimmers the rigid inflatable boats immediately turned back out to sea for recovery on a U.S. Navy ship that was even now steaming back toward the coast after the insertion.

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The first element of the combat swimmer/assault team would hit the beach, remove their swim fins and floatation vests then cross inland on foot less than a kilometer south of their target, a large beachfront villa on the southern edge of Baraawe. They would turn immediately north toward the objective. This first six-man element of the team moved inland approximately 400 meters toward the concealment of low scrub. The other six-man element lay prone in the gently lapping waves of shallow water just off the beach until the flanking assault element was in place. A series of clicks on their updated, secure AN/PRC-126 radios would signal the first assault team was in place. Then the two teams would move toward the target, a two-story villa where the objective, a high value personnel target named Ahmed Abdi Godane, was supposed to be located.

The two elements of the assault team were in place. The wind was gentle coming just barely off the ocean, it was 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun would not rise for another hour and forty minutes. Each member of the second assault element heard the clicks in their headset when the first element got into position. They responded with a single click of the mic button. Then each team member checked right, then left, clearing his field of fire and began a low, quick advance across the beach, trending right or north to the target.

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The building was surrounded by low walls on three sides and a high wall at the back. It made sense to go over the lower sections of the walls, enter the courtyard section, assault any threats that were providing security and then conduct the entry. Once the entry began, speed and violence of action was their primary tactic. They had to overwhelm what security may be in place quickly, assault the target building and secure the objective, detain Ahmed Abdi Godane or neutralize him, then exfil the target area. The primary extract route was by helo extraction near a defensible LZ south of the target area. The secondary extract was back out to sea.

Overhead surveillance by an RQ-170 Sentinel drone would provide a live video feed to the command center back at MacDill and help give the Naval Special Warfare operators on the beach a high degree of situational awareness via radio. What the Sentinel video showed now was troubling.  There were more personnel between the insertion point and the objective than normal. Within the walled compound itself, no less than eight hot targets could be seen, some of them milling around from target to target as if they were spreading information. Outside, there were more than ten hot spots between the insertion point at the beach and the objective.  The insertion would almost certainly involve contact earlier than they planned.

A common feature of operations in this region is that its difficult to tell who is a combatant and who is not from overhead surveillance. The hot spot on the drone feed may be a fisherman rigging his boat to go out at first light, or an insurgent walking a security perimeter armed with an automatic weapon and grenades. Until the assault team got eyes on they would not know from the drone feed. They didn’t have to wait to see to find out.

The insurgents initiated contact with one man firing a single round at one of the SEALs as he moved to a concealed position across the beach to establish the flanking position. The single round alerted every other sentry. The SEAL’s weapons were suppressed.  When another assault team member put two rounds into the insurgent it didn’t make enough noise to be heard back at the compound a couple hundred meters away. Nonetheless everyone in the compound was alerted by the single shot, then the silence. Now they were coming outside the wall.

The assault team worked an “L” shaped hasty ambush on the objective, both teams directing controlled fire toward targets they could see. When the volume of returning fire began to increase the SEAL assault team leader radioed for a pair of Viper gunships from an assault ship orbiting off the coast to swing inland for fire support.

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The Viper gunships, an upgraded version of the AH-1 Cobra helicopter, overflew the target from the ocean. They banked hard and attacked facing back out to sea to avoid collateral damage from their guns. When the rounds from the AH-1Z Viper ‘s 20 mm cannon hit the compound the result was like cracking open a hornet’s nest. The pilot and gunner could see personnel and vehicles scatter through their Thales Top Owl helmet imagery system. White streaks showed the path of gunfire reaching into the dark to find the assaulters.

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Special operations is a fragile craft with a courageous heritage. But the reality is lightly armed men are flung against sometimes heavily fortified targets in inferior numbers. Their primary advantage is speed and violence of action. If their objective is compromised before it can be overwhelmed their chances of success evaporate by the split second. The SEAL assault force commander on the beach knew this well, having operated on both sides of this double-edged sword for a decade. He knew he had men inland a few hundred meters who risked being cut off from the sea extraction route and that securing a landing zone for extraction was, at best, an iffy proposition now.

The assault was compromised before it began. He signaled for mission abort and emergency extraction.

This contingency was well drilled. The beach fire team put 40 mm grenade fire on the target while the inland team broke contact, peeling back toward the sand and the sea. Each man covered the next in a modified version of the classic peel maneuver to break contact. The Vipers overflew the target at high speed and low altitude, this time flying inland and banking left or south, the opposite direction as before, then paralleling the beach on a gun run to cover the SEALs.

Only twenty-five minutes after the first assault element crossed the beach the team was back in the water as their assault boats raced back inland to recover them. After a twenty-minute swim to the east and south the recovery boats spotted the infrared strobes of the assault teams and the recovery was completed. The Vipers left their orbit along the beach just before the SEALs were picked up off shore and the assault force collapsed back out to sea as the sun lit the horizon an angry orange. It would be hours or even days until U.S. assets would know if the target had been compromised in the raid.

The raid on Baraawe to capture Ahmed Abdi Godane did not go as planned. It also was not a failure. While the primary objective was not achieved it may have killed or wounded Godane. If not, it sent a clear message to Godane and his men: The U.S. will cross the beach to get you before you can get us. Regardless of the results on the beach that night in Baraawe that message was sent and received loud and clear.

10:58 Local (15:58 UTC), Monday, 7 October 2013, Administrative Offices, Triple Five Group, Mall of the Americas, Bloomington, Minnesota, United States. 

“We’ll have teams of agents operating undercover all the way from the parking lots to the inside of the mall itself.” The FBI agent told Bob Davis. “We need to put some of our people under cover as store employees and mall workers over the weekend too. Prior to the weekend we’ll be installing some additional surveillance equipment outside and inside the mall. We’re pretty sure we know what we’re looking for and this surveillance should prevent any operatives from gaining access to the mall.”

Davis thought he should be reassured. The thought of installing security checkpoints at the entrance and exit to the mall was unthinkable. It would ruin business and attract the wrong kind of media. This softer approach seemed much less… obtrusive. He hoped it was enough. He noticed his hand shake again.

By Tom Demerly.

rush_2660573bRon Howard’s RUSH is solidly one of the greatest films ever made, and perhaps the single best sporting film ever. It delivers you to the winner’s circle of epic excitement with intimate drama between iconic heroes.

There are two kinds of human contests: racing and warfare. What Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan did for drama and war, RUSH does for racing. There has never been a film this distinctly excellent and theatrical about any kind of sport. RUSH follows the story of racing rivals Niki Lauda, an exacting Austrian with the precise demeanor of an engineer and the wildly contrasting playboy Englishman James Hunt, his nemesis in the 1976 Formula 1 racing season.

Formula 1 is theater and RUSH is theater about theater. RUSH mainlines the classic themes of drama: danger, love, envy, loss, fear and redemption. It does so with excellent technical authenticity and careful reverence- albeit some historical license. And despite some heavy-handed sepia toning and a lack of real on-track camera work RUSH touches the hot buttons of F1 with incredible sound, vertiginous special effects and visuals. Because RUSH is a film for technical freaks (but not to the exclusion of all others) there is careful attention to on-track technical accuracy. But in the great craft of making movies for everyone in the audience Howard has built a film that will also thrill your wife or girlfriend.

RUSH moderates the pacing of on track action and back-story drama with seamless dexterity, a remarkable feat for the writing and editing crew. The movie is beautifully paced and builds to a massive climax then settles with an absolute masterpiece epilogue.

An intricate part of RUSH is the remarkable casting.  Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda are so precisely cast they interchange almost seamlessly with footage of the real Hunt and Lauda toward the end of the film.

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The murky sepia processing of some scenes in RUSH does get tedious but doesn’t detract from the masterful tapestry of storytelling.

The vintage feel of RUSH, while a bit overdone, does trace the beginnings of the modern age of Formula 1 with fairytale quality. You see it as we remember it, in grainy flashbacks and muted hues. The frightening accident sequences depict the time dilation you’ll recognize from any car accident you’ve been in. If you have ever raced anything this movie is mainlining adrenaline.

An integral part of the movie and one of the key layers is Lauda dealing with fear after his crash and moderating the adversarial relationship with Hunt. Both these themes thread the perfect tapestry through Ron Howard’s masterful direction and Peter Morgan’s fine script writing. The themes are reinforced with a bit of fiction though. The punch-up between Hunt and a reporter never happened. Some aspects of Hunt and Lauda’s face offs are more directly attributed to them than they were recorded in real life. It isn’t documentary, but it is great storytelling. Each theme is executed with craft and elegance missing from all but the greatest movies. RUSH is a masterpiece that transcends filmmaking eras it is so perfect.

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A photo of the actual crash with Niki Lauda in the 1976 German Gran Prix at the Nürburgring.

Ron Howard is lucky to have such an incredible, true drama as the conflict between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in 1976. He does not squander the gift of this story in RUSH. For those looking to RUSH as an inspirational tale pray to God we all have a James Hunt to our Niki Lauda.

While RUSH stops just short of being a perfect movie due to the overused film toning and a lack of real on-track camera work it is over the top as a perfect drama and amazing human story. The combination works like no other sports movie I’ve seen.  If you don’t’ get a rush from RUSH you belong in a morgue.