Produced by Trigger Street Productions
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Screenplay by Billy Ray
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Captain Phillips, the film, has come under fire since its opening, as has the eponymous captain of the Danish container ship Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. Complaints against Richard Phillips have been made in American courts and the American press. The Alabama’s crew has brought suit against the Maersk Line for having put them in harm’s way when they decided to have Phillips sail the ship off the coast of Somalia. They’re also steamed at Phillips for allowing director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray to make him a hero. Once reporters and commentators smelled controversy, they glommed onto the movie, hoping for a media bonanza.
As stimulating as this controversy is, I am going to ignore it for a few moments in order to address its occasion, the film dramatization of what Phillips and his crew had to endure while they were being held captive by four Somali men—little more than youngsters, actually—brandishing and occasionally firing AK-47s. Greengrass and Ray have translated Phillips’ book, A Captain’s Duty, to the screen with a minimum of fuss and, it looks to me, a maximum of authenticity. I won’t venture a final judgment on the movie’s accuracy, however.
Phillips (Tom Hanks) is at the narrative’s center from the time we see him driving to the airport with his wife on the morning of his departure to Salalah, Oman, to assume his new command. Once on board the Alabama, he quickly proves a no-nonsense captain. When he finds officers drinking coffee in the mess, he wonders aloud if they’ll be finished any time soon. They hasten to their posts. Later, two officers object that he’s sailing too close to the Somalian coastline, making them vulnerable to the pirates who have been launching assaults on merchant ships with growing frequency over the past 20 years. Phillips points out that the pirates now launch their skiffs from larger “mother” ships they’ve hijacked from countries such as China and Indonesia, so it doesn’t matter how far the Alabama is from the coast. Should the pirates appear, Phillips assures the men, they’ll adhere to the security drills and outmaneuver them. If that doesn’t work, they’ll blast the pirates with their fire hoses. The crew members are not assuaged. They bitterly complain that they’re not being paid enough to fight pirates. Phillips responds sharply that they knew the situation when they signed on for duty and insists that there is no safe port between them and their destination in Mombasa.
With that, we cut to a Somali village where four black SUVs come roaring into a marketplace, scattering the townspeople. Armed men, emissaries of a local warlord, get out and begin to harry a group of young men. Do they want to work; do they want to make some money? Another question hangs unspoken in the air: Do you think you have a choice? The young men divide into crews of four and take to the water in battered skiffs. The hunt is on.
When Phillips sees two skiffs closing in, he evades the would-be brigands by steering his ship left and right again and again, creating a formidable wake that swamps one of the boats. The Somalis give up, only to return the following morning.
Against the odds, the second assault brings a lone skiff alongside the Alabama, and the pirates are able to throw a metal boarding ladder over the ship’s rail some 30 feet above them. Once they have clambered aboard, they flourish their AK-47s with abandon, terrifying Phillips and the two officers with him on the bridge. The rest of the crew is out of sight, having been sent to the engine room where, by Phillips’ order, they’ve turned off the ship’s electrical power. Phillips offers the pirates food and tells them the ship’s “broken,” but they’re not so easily fooled. They’re veterans of at least two successful hijackings and expect to be paid millions for this one also. When Phillips offers them the $30,000 in the ship’s safe, they’re insulted. Their leader, the five-foot four, spindle-legged Abduwali Muse, immediately demands access to the engine room. From this point, the danger escalates. The Somalis become frustrated in the darkness below deck. With each misstep, they realize they’re losing more control.
Eventually, there’s a standoff between the crew and the pirates that culminates in Phillips being kidnapped and taken on board one of the ship’s enclosed lifeboats. His captors intend to hold him for ransom. As we know, the U.S. Navy will come to the rescue. The whole business ends with disturbingly perfunctory executions. With steel-cold efficiency, three SEAL Team Six sharpshooters kill three of the kidnappers with headshots that spatter Phillips’ shirt with blood and brains, leaving him in a state of shock. Muse survives by virtue of the Navy, who took him captive pretending to enter negotiations with him. He now resides at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute.
Hanks’ performance is easily the best he’s ever given. He renders a portrait in controlled fear as he struggles to keep his voice level while trying to reason with Muse. His eyes are preternaturally still, his wariness registered in his fixed stare into the incomprehensible otherness of his African captors. You can almost see his mind racing to stay ahead of them. As for the pirates, Greengrass chose actors who aren’t physically imposing—they’re thin and, with one exception, small of stature. Their faces are drawn, their teeth bucked, their hair wild. It’s obvious they have not enjoyed the benefits of modern medicine and grooming. In short, they look like savages wholly unamenable to reason. They’re frightening because they’re desperate, unpredictable, and, at first, profoundly alien. Only their leader, Muse, seems to be in control of himself. Upon reaching the bridge, he announces that he and his small band are not Al Qaeda. “It’s only business,” he declares, as if this should reassure the crew.
As played by the Somali-American Barkhad Abdi, Muse seems to have the intelligence and restraint necessary to prevent the situation from descending into chaos and bloodshed. Still, he’s given to firing off a round or two in order to frighten Phillips and the crew. His tactic succeeds precisely because it’s obvious that he’s consumed with fear—a fear that reveals to Phillips the boy’s horrid plight.
The success of the film can be measured in how Greengrass has managed to hold his audience in suspense throughout a narrative whose denouement is already known. He does so by avoiding conventional heroic flourishes, employing instead the skills he acquired making documentaries. Wherever possible he lets events speak for themselves.
And now to the controversy. Phillips’ discrediting in the lawsuit waged by the crew is easily dispatched. These gentlemen and their lawyers are practicing a form of piracy, less violent than the Somalis’ but just as greedy. No, that’s wrong: The Somalis were hoping to score a mere ten million; the crew’s suit is for 50 big ones, and they are willing to say whatever is necessary to hit pay dirt. As for the criticism of our commentariat, their political agenda seems to have run amok. Those on the left, such as David Denby at The New Yorker, insist that Muse is a victim of the ruthless capitalism that has led corporate-backed vessels to deplete the Gulf of Aden’s waters of the fish Somalis have traditionally depended upon for food and income. This has left them with no recourse but piracy. While it’s true that Chinese and Western ships have poached unconscionably in these waters, it doesn’t follow that this is what motivates Muse and his followers, who may never have been fishermen themselves. Phillips calls Muse on this, and his charges go suspiciously unanswered. It’s much more likely that the young men, however pressured by warlords, were seeking profitable adventure. On the right, we have, among others, James Bowman grousing in The American Spectator that Greengrass has gone beyond all reasonable limits to make Muse seem a victim. He further claims that Greengrass has unwarrantably paralleled Muse’s supposed victimhood with that of Phillips, who, Bowman argues, is portrayed to be a tool of corporate interests ready to sacrifice him if necessary.
The film gives little evidence of grinding a political ax of any kind except, perhaps, for Muse’s startling claim upon his capture that he loves America. Does this betray Greengrass’s support for unsuitable immigrants? Or does Muse’s outcry merely reveal his wish to escape the hell he’s been living in at home?
If political advocacy were Greengrass’s game, he might have had Phillips suddenly realize his American guilt for having supposedly oppressed Somalis. True, the captain regrets that U.S. forces will inevitably kill these foolish young men, but not so much that he is willing to call off his rescue. He never loses sight of the pirates’ responsibility for putting his and his crew’s lives in mortal danger. Beyond the movie itself, Bowman is annoyed with Phillips for not having been as manly as he should have been. Why, he even cried after being rescued, violating the code of manly honor! A valid criticism, no doubt, from one who’s known never to flinch when he’s smeared with gore while walking the savage streets of our nation’s capital.
Greengrass has given us something much more interesting than a political reading of Phillips’ story. Without sentimentality, he’s shown how Phillips and the Somalis glimpsed their respective humanity. This, however, did not result in group hugs or U.N.-style speeches about our destined multicultural harmony in the coming world state. When the Navy SEALs save him by killing three of the hijackers, Phillips may break down in tears, but his emotions are a manifestation of his sudden release from enormous fear, not sorrow at his captors’ fate.
Some events are beyond the reach of ideology.