When I first heard that Captain Phillips was going to be made, it should be known that I was taking a class titled “Micro-Issues in Relief and Development” and had chosen Somalia to be my country of study. I was immediately interested in how they would make a film like this and utterly terrified at how the Somalis would be portrayed as the “villains” of the story. After having seen Captain Phillips (as well as its Danish counterpart A Hijacking) I can say that there are two great films that tackled this subject, excellent in their technique, and in the way that they address the entire story.
Captain Phillips opens with Tom Hanks, playing Rich Phillips, leaving his nice home in Virginia, preparing to head to Oman where he will deliver aid to Mombasa, Kenya. He and his wife have a discussion about how the world has changed, one that indirectly discusses globalization, how the world is smaller, closer. It is through this lens that I believe director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Bill Ray want you to see the film.
After Phillips departs, the film cuts to Somalia where we meet the other principle character, Abduwali Muse, a Somali man who is forced to select a crew to go and pirate by the local warlord. He selects his crew and they are on their way. This is not the only time that in the midst of telling the story of Phillips, the camera cuts away to the happenings of the Somalis. In fact everything that happens to Phillips and his crew seems to be paralleled by Muse and his. Both struggle to keep their men loyal to them. Both are held hostage at the same time. Both crews end up in over their head with what happens and both end up as pawns in a larger global game. Both view each other through binoculars at the same moment as the event that will change both their lives is about to happen. Greengrass doesn’t portray Phillips and Muse as the same, but shows us how their lives parallel. By establishing the Somali characters from the beginning it’s as if he is telling us that these people are important too. I saw that a foreign translation for this movie was “A Captain’s Tale”, this seemed to fit better, because it is not merely about one captain, but rather two.
I came out of the movie with this reading of the film, but as the end approaches (SPOILERS here though this actually happened and I am sure you can guess the ending) the audience around me grew restless, laughing scornfully whenever Muse mentioned how he loved America. When Phillips is rescued through snipers shooting the poverty stricken Somali men, one person began clapping. When the film went to black and the real-life updates were given, the people behind me were shocked that the captured Muse was only given 33 years in American prison.
Despite these reactions, I truly believe that Greengrass and company meant to give us a larger tale than good vs. evil; rather they meant to show us a story that tells of liberal economic policies, American influence, and how this affects our globalized world. The rest of this essay will discuss why this is so.
When the Somalis invade the boat in an intense sequence of events, eventually Muse is taken captive by the crew. The American crew takes Muse, holding him at gunpoint in order to get what they want. Though the Somalis are originally the violent ones, it is shown that in desperation anybody can act violently. Though they are acting in defense and in retribution, it shows how quickly the hopeless turn violent to fight for life. Later we find out that if the Somali crew gets home with nothing, their lives are too in danger. When each needs to survive, the capability for violence is increased.
The pirates’ main motivation is money. They are not trying to make a statement, they want to get as much money as they can. When offered thirty thousand dollars, one of them states “I want millions”. In light of global economics which teach of acting out in self-interest, does this not translate?
Muse states several times that he really has no other choice. He calls the work they are doing a tax, for the use of “their” waters. Phillips responds, refuting his answer, by saying that these are “international waters”. Both are right. Where Phillips comes from, in his world, the powers that be have decided that these are international. In Muse’s mind, these belong and always have belonged to his ancestors. Yet, in a twist of global “fairness” it now belongs to everyone. For local Somali fisherman this means that their fish, their livelihood, is taken from them. When Phillips tells Muse that he has other options besides fishing and piracy, Muse responds “maybe in America”.
This highlights two ironies that run throughout the film. The first is Muse’s constant speaking of America. He says that after he is done with pirating, he will go to America, relishing in his success. When the film ends we find out he will spend time there, in jail. The other irony is that Phillips’ ship is delivering supplies to give to hungry “Africans”. Instead of accomplishing his task, he is met face to face with the reality of global policy.
Of the four Somali pirates that we spend time with, Najee, is arguably the least redeemable character. The others at least seem nice at various points, but Najee is argumentative, aggressive, and violent. If there is any sense of justice to be had, it would be in his death. Yet, I believe that even Najee is made to be seen as a victim of his circumstances, as he delivers the most profound expression of the person in poverty. When the Navy Seals come in to take care of the situation and negotiation begins, he cries out exasperated, “they’re treating us like children!” This cry is an important one to take in. Najee is a man, born into poverty where there are often few choices to be made, told that the land he once fished is no longer his because of macroeconomic policies put into place by corrupt government heads, and dependent on white-skinned foreigners to bring relief; he takes advantage of an opportunity to do something for himself, bringing in money that will help he and his family (we assume). Even in this, with a gun in his hand, he gets no respect. The Navy Seals treat him like a child when he wants to be seen as someone with worth.
This leads me to my last point which is about the Navy intervention. It could be interpreted, as I recounted above, that the Navy comes in as the heroes here, saving the day from the pirates. They do come in and do their job with extreme precision. However, it is hardly an inspiring moment. For the most part the Navy is left faceless. We are never meant to care about them with any affection. In fact, when Phillips discovers that the Navy have entered into the picture he is terrified, knowing that they care more about a global image than any of the individual lives of the men on the boat.
The last couple of scenes reminded me of the end of another true story, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. The death of Osama Bin Laden happens in a factual manner and the film closes with a close-up on Maya as she breaks down crying. It is ambiguous as to whether Maya is upset, joyous, or is just letting out all the tension that had built throughout the film. I see the same thing in Captain Phillips. When the plan is executed there is a sense of relief to all the tension that had built to this point. However, this relief is not completely satisfying. The bloody mess that was created does not leave the viewer appeased. It’s as if life calls for answers that are deeper and more complex than the solution shown here.
The last scene, which is likely the film’s most remarkable, shows Hanks getting medical attention as he tries to hold himself together emotionally, but slowly begins breaking down. The medical examiner asks him if the blood all over him has come from his head, all he can manage to say is “it’s not my blood, not my blood”. Through this powerful and emotional scene, it’s almost as if Greengrass is reminding us that Phillips wasn’t the one who was hurt in this situation, no, it was someone else, someone who we will forget about entirely.