A Captain Unafraid (2016) Poster

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A smart job on modest budget
hlc-cicff22 February 2017
Not often are we intrigued by a character from history unless they were either a hero or a scoundrel. This well researched and award-winning documentary produced and directed by Charles O'Brien, tells the story of a 19th Century roustabout who lived both paradigms almost simultaneously. From a scrappy kid growing up along New York's East River, he started his career as a tugboat pilot and blazed a career path of "avoiding" the law and enabling revolution. This is the story of Dynamite Johnny O'Brien and danger was his business.

The impetus of the story comes from a biography written in 1912 by Horace Smith, entitled 'A Captain Unafraid, The Strange Adventures of Dynamite Johnny O' Brien'. American history is rich with adventure, discovery, and revolution. It has been romanticized and embellished with much pomp and circumstance. The virtue of this documentary, however, is that it needs no exaggeration of character or sensationalizing of facts.

Since birth Johnny had a fascination with the sea and learned his trade by hanging out at the docks throughout his adolescence. By the time he was a young man he had gained a reputation for being a very talented and confident pilot. The more dangerous the expedition the more likely he was to take it. He became one of the few captains who was known to navigate through rough waters and haul extremely unstable materials like dynamite.

O'Brien stayed obliquely noncommittal but was active during America's Civil War and participated in other revolutionary causes with rebels in Haiti, Honduras, Texas and Mexico. To call him a rebel without a cause I think underrates his spirit of freedom and the attraction he had to the underdog's fight. It didn't take much to compel Johnny to aid the cause of Cuba's revolution against Spain.

It was when he successfully hauled sixty tons of dynamite through a brutal lightning storm at sea, that he earn the name "Dynamite" Johnny O'Brien. Running guns and dynamite through the Spanish blockade aided and abetted the liberation of Cuba and to this day, Captain O'Brien is revered as a national hero in Cuba.

This rich historical tapestry is woven with interviews including Johnny's descendants, local historians and the caretakers of some of the properties where Johnny resided. Segments of "motion comic" styled animation bring contrast to the cinematic effect, maintaining a rustic aesthetic in keeping with a 19th Century seafarer's tale. Mr. O'Brien, the documentary producer, and director do a smart job on modest budget. 'A Captain Unafraid' is a must see for anyone with a propensity for American History and the fascinating individuals who forged it.

EJ Wickes/Cult Critic/CICFF
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