“Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.”
In 2009, a cargo ship commanded by Captain Richard Phillips through the international seas around Somalia was hijacked by a swarm of Somali pirates. Quick maneuvering by Captain Phillips (an exceptional Tom Hanks) manages to send one of those small boats fleeing back to Somalia. But the other boat and its captain Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (a breakout performance by Barkhad Abdi) refuses to turn back. The cargo ship, carrying relief supplies to several countries (including Somalia), has no firearms aboard, no security detail, no defense. All they have are high-pressure water hoses and their own wits.
Captain Phillips orders his own men below deck to hide from Muse and his men. It works up to a point. They make a deal to give the men $35,000 (all the cash they have aboard) if they simply retreat. The men refuse, believing that by holding Phillips and his crew hostage they can bribe the US for millions. If the plan of the 9/11 hijackers was flawlessly executed, the same could not be said about this group of teenage Somalis high on khat, some of them barefoot, all of them wearing rags. The dominoes begin to fall, they are eventually backed into a corner under siege by the most powerful defense system in the history of civilization.
The sensitivity with which screenwriter Billy Ray, director Paul Greengrass, and especially the film’s star, Tom Hanks, approach this subject matter is startling, especially for an American film, especially a film about terrorism. How dare we sympathize with our faceless enemies who want to kill Americans?
Captain Phillips is a true story, one that was shaped and used as fodder for wartime mentality , a level orange freak-out bomb. Captain Phillips was celebrated as a hero, a title he certainly earned. What makes the movie unusual is how it weaves the story of the pirates we were never told. The ambiguity of war, the confusing feelings it stirs up, the ultimate tragedy it leaves in its wake — all of these ideas thread through Captain Phillips. We Americans are mighty. We have the luxury of choosing what we want to do with our lives. Our wealth overflows in our trash heaps. We throw out more food than most countries consume in a year. Greengrass’ film asks you to take a look at it from the other side.
Greengrass, working with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Christopher Rouse, brings the urgency to life with pulsating action sequences, and breathtaking unforgettable shots of giant Navy vessels swallowing up the ocean juxtaposed with the tiny boat that holds the hijackers. Greengrass never rushes through the expository scenes, but lets the character development build naturally. At the same time, he never lets up when the film reaches its tense third act.
Some of the critics out of the gate have criticized the film for portraying the hijackers as faceless, personality-less and overtly evil. I would say the opposite is true. The story sold to us Americans was precisely that. We bought it and continued to believe that this was another attack from our enemies — never mind that pirates only wanted cold, hard cash and had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. Regardless of their meager goals and motivations, there were no winners on the Somali side of things. The Americans always win, as Hanks’ character says in the film. Captain Phillips is a film I hope Americans make an effort to see, though it’s Fox News’ worst nightmare.
It’s 2013. Twelve years since 9/11 almost exactly. Much has changed in our country. Two international wars that took the deaths of 6,756 American soldiers, to say nothing of the deaths of innocent women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are on the brink of attacking Syria. For all of the fear of terrorism consuming our collective consciousness we’re not the ones getting attacked. Well, almost never. If the opportunity presents itself, our enemies will find a way. But the fear we have from them is like an elephant fearing a mouse. We don’t often have the opportunity to see that extreme imbalance side by side. But in Captain Phillips we are given a chance to review history from a different angle.
Captain Phillips is a terrifying dive into a tense situation that likely could have ended with everyone dead. If you know the facts of the story you’ll already know how the body count tallied up. The history might have been different if the numbers had swung the other way. I’ll leave you to look that up if you have an interest. We have been conditioned to believe that any foreigner who attacks American Interests is a terrorist, the uniform mask of the enemy. But Greengrass shows us the faces of the faceless.
Tom Hanks has once again managed to find an emotional performance to add to his impressive body of work. He never overdoes it here but it’s his compassion, together with Abdi’s performance, that humanizes Captain Phillips out of being just another America, Fuck Yeah movie. The film tries to tell parallel stories of the two captains, how dramatically different their lives are — what has brought them to this point and what will get them out of it. After all, on the Somali side there are no giant army tanks coming to their aid. On the American side, well, there is a reason so much of our tax dollars go towards fortifying our empire.
The real life Muse was but a babe, just 18 years old when he was made as a hijacker. Raised on khat and guns, left with a fishless ocean thanks to the larger corporations depleting their reserves (not to mention dumping toxic waste in their waters), there is little else a young Somali man can do but turn to crime. This is an international problem, and those crimes are also an international problem; the cargo ship was bringing food aid to impoverished countries, Somalia among them. Abdi plays with the right amount of fear and swagger. You never really know what’s going to happen next except that he carefully considers each thought that motivates each action. Hanks and Abdi drive Captain Phillips with equal force.
This year so many directors have deemed to significantly upped their game (depending on whom you talk to). This is true of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, Steve McQueen’s 12 years a Slave, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Greengrass seems to have combined his gifts for storytelling with his obvious adeptness for action sequences in Captain Phillips, in my opinion, one of the best films of the year.
It doesn’t really matter if they have personalities or families or backgrounds. All that matters is that they are people who want to kill Americans. Or, in this case, hijack a ship for money. But those are unnecessary details. We are led to believe we’re in danger every second of the day because we are Americans and everyone wants to kill us. This is a film that could have easily been made by the numbers. But any intelligent person already knows that a ragtag group of hijackers who dare to attack the property of the United States — shoeless teenage nomads going up against the Navy SEALS, for god’s sake — has no earthly shot at winning this game. Greengrass means to go deeper than the foregone conclusion.
Terrorists — a blanket term exploited by our two-term president, George W. Bush, that we are, as Americans, required to kill on sight, or forever imprison under god knows what circumstances. The world is changing fast. Ideas are forever evolving. The shift in Hollywood takes a little longer but that shift is reflected in the best modern war movies, like The Hurt Locker, and now, Captain Phillips.
Maybe you think, who cares. It’s just a Hollywood movie. We live in a culture that looks to movies and television for their reality. That is not changing any time soon, despite the wealth of available news outlets to tell us the truth about what’s happening in our world – the world we share with millions of people from all corners of the world, rich and poor, powerful and powerless.