Captain Phillips wants to succeed on two levels. As a thriller, I encountered a first-rate action piece, a near-impeccably staged and gripping reenactment of a story I already knew; the director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum, United 93) ably recreated a hostage crisis and naval standoff (well, more of a one-sided standoff) that dominated a news cycle four years ago. Rare for an action movie, Greengrass has coaxed terrific performances from his two leads, Tom Hanks as the eponymous skipper and Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of Phillips’ Somali captors and in some ways Phillips’ mirror image. It’s Hanks’ best work in years, and probably his best film in a similarly lengthy period of time.
As contemporary political commentary, however, I left the theater confused as to what Captain Phillips was trying to communicate. Muse is initially presented as a counterpart to Captain Phillips, both are shown to be no-nonsense calming dissension among their crew, some of whom are green and some of whom are veterans of their mission, whether it’s delivering humanitarian supplies to Africa, as the manifest of Phillips’ Maersk Alabama indicates, or patrolling the Horn of Africa for loot. Our first impressions are that both can think quickly and boldly under pressure–well, until Muse ultimately resorts to desperation and unreasonableness. That the film’s script and the dialogue insist on repeatedly referring to Muse as “Captain,” just his hostage, suggests that the film largely considers the two helmsman to be something like equals, even though Muse’s irrational demands undermine that assumption and betray the pragmatism we thought we saw at the film’s beginning. Captain Phillips concerns itself with Social Darwinism, and there’s clearly a more fit party in this crisis—it’s the United States Navy, which comes to Phillips’ rescue. But there’s a less fit party, too—Muse wasn’t solely done in by the mighty forces upon which Phillips’ ship could call for aid, but by his own incompetence and stupidity. Captain Phillips could have better examined America’s precarious place in third-world affairs—and presented Muse’s desperation as a more unsettling tragedy—had it not allowed its perspective on and depiction of the Somali pirates to devolve into simplemindedness and high-pitched bickering. (The pirates spend the last third of the film screaming at each other at the top of their lungs.) If the film navigates the United States’ tricky position in this matter with some insight and trenchant criticism, the film steers Muse off course—you’ll understand Muse’s motivations and desperation, but not necessarily why he started behaving so dumbly.
Captain Phillips is essentially a story of competition. I think we’re meant to think of Captain Phillips and Muse as agents of competitors, or of potential competitors. On one hand Phillips represents a brand of commercial humanitarianism, a corporate worker, but for a corporation (and a country) with a surplus to share. On the other, Muse belongs to a tribe—not a national, ethnic, or racial tribe, per se, but to a tribe of people who need money because they have no government to speak of and some traditional dividing lines might start to blur when the necessities of life are at stake. When left to chew more qat than rice, for example, you understand why they appear malnourished.
If people like those from Muse’s coastal village are the intended recipients of what the US government and Western corporations are shipping, though, it’s pretty clear they’re not getting what’s intended. This is a function of having no state to help them create and preserve any form of social organization, and, likely, I’d think the filmmakers would say, of the Westerners’ laziness in ensuring that the goods they feel so good about delivering—Phillips and his crew boast about the humanitarian nature of what they transport—find the hands of those who need it. Therein lies the basis for the competition underway—Captain Phillips and Muse are microcosms for a battle at open water fought by two sides that basically want the same thing. It’s somewhat ironic that the humanitarian goals of both sides—to deliver food (the West) and to distribute it (Muse’s bosses, or whoever has assumed the role of government in African villages)—can lead to piracy and violence. “You’d think these trips would get easier,” Phillips tells his wife before embarking on his fateful journey, “but it’s just the opposite.” There’s a sense that the West, in boasting of supplying precious cargo free of charge and for an objectively good purpose, has forced Somalis like Muse to engage in a distorted form of capitalism that engenders increased corruption and looting on land in Africa and increasingly dangerous passages for ships like the Alabama at sea.
Because one senses that the situation off the Somali coasted has distorted the market and ultimately tipped the scales in the West’s favor—the West can afford to play by inefficient rules, and indeed can set them, the pirates can’t, but have no choice—there’s an obvious winner. But the film opens by trying to convey that, before the larger forces at play arrive on the scene, there shouldn’t be a clear winner between Phillips and Muse, as I intimated. Both have to inspect their ships and take charge of their crews—Phillips and Muse are assertive and no-nonsense and drawn in stark contrast to those under them. (In fact, they’re the only two characters of much substance in the movie—everyone else pretty much complains that they have to listen to their leader before doing what’s told.)
But as I said above, they’re not equals, a fact made quite apparent as the hostage crisis escalates. Muse and his three mates ultimately take Phillips away in a lifeboat, but not before Phillips offers Muse the contents of the Alabama‘s safe, which totals $30,000. That’s not a large take for Muse’s crew, and probably much smaller than what Muse’s bosses expect of him—as Muse retorts to Phillips later, he’s got to answer to somebody, too, and Muse boasts that he’s had a $6 million annual take before—but it’s not nothing, and if Muse were the shrewd businessman he’s presented as, he should’ve pocketed the cash and tried his luck elsewhere in international waters before somebody radioed in and forced a situation from which it would be impossible for Muse to extricate himself. And Muse’s also a shitty negotiator—his reply to Phillips’ offer of thirty grand is an asking price of $10 million, which far outstrips his previous best haul. What’s worse, even if Phillips and the Alabama would amount to Muse’s largest prize, he appears to genuinely believe until very late in the film that he will actually receive the $10 million ransom for his efforts. A pirate who’s shown to be experienced enough in the seas policed and watched by the US Navy to earn the trust of his village elders and deft enough to calculate whether he can commandeer the Alabama falling for this? I don’t buy it as a launching point for analyzing the reasons for piracy off the African coast or the American interests at stake. Muse asserts that he’s a businessman and not al-Qaeda, as if this demonstrates his rationality. And I imagine that the film does, or at least did once, believe in Muse’s rationality—despite its singular title, it’s structured as a bilateral portrait of two individuals caught in an extreme situation. For that reason, it’s unfortunate that the film asks Muse to abandon any pretense of it.
My best guess for the filmmakers’ response to this is that the Navy’s outsize presence—there are three battleships using several SEAL snipers to train their sights on only four people in a a comparatively tiny lifeboat—exacerbates the desperation Muse already felt as a resident of a neglected part of the world, to the point where Muse thinks he cannot do anything else but lodge more and more unreasonable demands and, in the fevered haze of the moment, think that he might gain something from the affair. That’s an interesting and nuanced starting point, and the film does want to shine a light on Muse’s desperation and the potentially unequal response to doing so. If we all agree that we’re glad someone could save Captain Phillips, the film’s final shot, of the three hulky ships that responded to the distress signal, insinuates that the size of the response, and the fact that one country has the means to deploy it, is kinda ridiculous. The film doesn’t necessarily disagree with America’s incentives and impulse for stationing forces in that part of the world—most people like humanitarianism, and most people wouldn’t have a problem with a party coordinating humanitarian efforts if it has the resources at its disposal. But as the film demonstrates, even these well-intentioned efforts are not without their costs, but it’s this criticism of the costs of the humanitarian effort that the film eventually undermines. With Muse made out to behave unreasonably, the cost-benefit analysis of the United States’ humanitarian mission is more easily resolved in the Americans’ favor than if Muse had only been a victim of circumstance rather than partially done in by his impossible demands.
The actual rescue scenes are sophisticated and expertly crafted. Much of this has to do with Hanks and Abdi—the former an odd choice for an action movie, perhaps, but an instantly sympathetic and empathetic one, the latter an unknown who provides an immediate air of authenticity. And the resolution of the standoff, when it comes, is abrupt and climactic, thanks to a director who knows how to film incredibly tense action sequences. (There’s a reason the Bourne movies—the two directed by Greengrass, that is—are so well-regarded, and its on display here, in addition to Greengrass’ ability to reconstruct well-known events without lathered-on sentimentality while firmly establishing his story in the moment and inside the action.) My only regret is that the film’s message didn’t match the sophistication and authenticity of the action, if not for a lack of trying. If the United States’ position in the Indian Ocean is a bit muddled, so too was the film’s vision how its presence there has affected those it is ostensibly helping.