I finally saw Captain Phillips today, three weeks after it opened. I’m not going to apologize for finally reviewing it, though. When I started this blog, I knew I wanted to review movies and theatre and stuff, but I wanted my reviews to reflect the way people actual see really see movies. Professional critics get their reviews out just before the opening weekend, which is important for the commercial success of failure of movies. But I’m more interested in analysis than thumbs up/thumbs down movie reviewing. That’s also why I don’t worry about spoilers. Your friends don’t, when they tell you about a flick they liked.
So, at the end of Captain Phillips, the title character, played by Tom Hanks, is escorted by SEALS to a Navy ship, where he’s treated by a medical corpsman. He’s survived a horrendous experience, his ship taken by pirates, then, when they escape in a life boat, taken hostage. He’s been threatened, abused, shot at, and nearly executed. Thanks to the efficient marksmanship of Navy SEALS, he’s now been rescued. And he can barely talk. He’s so deeply in shock, he can barely remember his name. He can’t tell medical personnel where it hurts–has to gesture vaguely. The camera lingers forever, it seems, on his traumatized face. It’s a fantastic performance by Tom Hanks, of course, but it’s also perhaps the finest cinematic portrayals of the medical condition we call ‘shock’ ever filmed.
That moment should be triumphant. US military might has defeated the bad guys, killed three of them and arrested the fourth. Hanks has been saved, will be able to return to his family, will be able to resume his life and his career. But director Paul Greengrass doesn’t treat it that way, as some kind of affirmation of American military power. In fact, it feels oddly tragic.
The whole film does. The title is Captain Phillips, but he’s neither the most important nor the most compelling character in the film. The heart of the film isn’t the hijacking of Phillips’ cargo ship, but the days Phillips spends in his ship’s lifeboat, held hostage by four Somali pirates. And the key relationship in the film is between Hanks’ character, and the pirate captain, a skinny Somali pirate named Muse, superbly played by Barkhad Abdi. Abdi’s from Somalia, by way of Yemen and Minnesota. Has a degree from Minnesota State. He was working as a chauffeur when Greengrass cast him; he has no previous acting experience.
And he’s tremendous. Muse is a skinny guy with huge, bad teeth. As Abdi plays him, he’s intelligent and an effective, if soft-spoken natural leader. After he first hijacks the ship, he stands in the control room, looking at all the computer screens and electronic gizmos that run the ship. He stares at the machinery, caresses a monitor. Then, in frustration, he begins striking at it with his hands. He has no chance of running this ship, and he knows it. He’s just captured the biggest thing he can imagine capturing, and it’s essentially useless to him.
Captain Phillips offers him a reasonable deal. He has $30,000 in cash on board, in a safe (which I assume is normal for cargo ships in those waters), and he can give the pirates that money plus the life boat. It’s a decent haul. But we’ve already seen the pressure Muse is under. A Somali warlord is a demanding boss. Thirty grand won’t cut it. There’s a certain relief evident when he takes Phillips hostage–he can collect a kidnapping ransom, and still come out ahead, and it won’t require learning how to navigate an entire modern American cargo ship.
Because that’s really what this movie is about, a clash of civilizations. It’s what happens when an essentially pre-modern (though heavily armed) society pisses of the greatest technological and military power the world has ever seen. In a key exchange, Hanks looks compassionately at Muse and says something like ‘you don’t have to do this. You could do more with your life.’ And Muse replies sadly “maybe in America. Maybe in America.”
Of all the miserable, poor, violent, screwed-up countries on earth, Somalia may be the most seriously screwed-up. It’s what happens when, without even the rudiments of government, you try to build a culture around AKs and khat chewing. But Somalia’s coast line is right along shipping routes between very very wealthy countries. And Somalia’s previous main industry was fishing. You’ve got a country with lots of guns, lots of people who own boats and know how to use them, with badly over-fished coastal waters. (Over-fished by Western fisherman, says Muse). Hardly surprising that so many Somali sailors turn to piracy, supervised, financed and armed by local warlords.
Desperation and poverty and violence. And so these ragged, skinny, desperate young men capture a cargo ship, with no idea after that what to do with it. And then, having taken a hostage, run afoul of the United States Navy.
Muse is the leader, but all four pirates are fully realized characters; more individuated than Captain Phillips’ crew, for example. Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) is the enforcer, barely sane, hair-trigger violent and subject to berserker rages. Only Muse can control him, and even then, only occasionally. Najee (Faysal Ahmed) is maybe sixteen, and barefoot; his role the all-crucial one of khat supplier. He seems mostly terrified throughout. And Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) is the boat guy, the guy who knows how to steer a small boat in ocean waves and how to maintain and outboard motor. He’s the voice of reason throughout, Muse’s right hand man.
We know all four guys. We grow to care about them, as people. And once the Navy ships show up, we know they have no chance whatsoever. They’re going to be killed, the only question being whether Phillips survives. The question of Phillips’ survival is a powerful one, and I don’t mean to suggest that the last half hour of the film is anything less than completely suspenseful. But the Somalis are doomed. And at least three of them are intelligent guys, people who could, given some education and opportunity make something useful of their lives. In fact, even scary Bilal isn’t treated with contempt by the filmmaker. Khat addiction, and a childhood filled with violence (both of which the film suggests), could warp anyone.
Paul Greengrass is an extraordinary director, politically minded, but also a fine entertainer–he made the best two Bourne movies, for example. This is one of those ‘based on a true story’ movies. Rich Phillips is a real guy, and his ship really was hijacked, and he really did survive despite terrible treatment. And the real-life Muse is, as in the movie, currently in federal prison. But while making an exciting, powerful, entertaining movie, Greengrass also does something else. He makes us care about the third world. He makes us care about Somalia.