I have a knack for catching movies right as they’re going out of theaters. I apologize for my untimely reviews of films that you’ve either already seen or will have to go out of your way to find, but being Oscar season, maybe the search will be worth it.
As a “based on a true story” feature, Captain Phillips promises drama and emotionally wrought performances, and, for the most part, it delivers. But like all interpretations of history, this film also leaves a lot of questions about the veracity of portrayals of events and the motivations behind the action. Having read about the lawsuit that the real-life crew of the high jacked vessel has filed against Maersk prior to seeing the film, I took Captain Phillips as a piece of historical fiction and tried to focus more on storytelling rather than the hard facts.
The film tells us that Phillips was the salt of the earth captain of the MV Maersk Alabama who was tasked with sailing around the Horn of Africa, where he encountered a group of pirates led by a young Somali named Muse. If you followed the news, you know he was eventually taken hostage.
As much as the film tries to frame its story as a test of wills between Muse and Phillips, it’s really more about how far the U.S. will go to protect international shipping routes. The shipping lanes are the modern day roads of Rome and are still policed with all the military force capitalism can muster. The movie harps on this point, from Phillips’s insistence on the sanctity of “international waters”
to the Somalis voicing that they “can’t attack a herd” and must attack lone ships outside of the lanes. The film is also clear on the rules of engagement when the sea routes are threatened: diplomacy is just a means to kill time until the death squad arrives, as a U.S. Admiral calmly states when she assures a Henry Rollins-esq (he just looked a lot like him) Navy commander that he shouldn’t fret the pirates willingness to negotiate–ultimately, “the SEAL team will take care of it.” I think the real lesson here is that if attacking one ship summoned a SEAL team, two war ships, and an aircraft carrier, violating the shipping routes would probably have conjured the entire U.S. 5th Fleet.
This emphasis on policing and the consequences for pirates really muddles the characters in the film’s second half. After the one hour mark the focus shifts from the individual personalities of Phillips and Muse to the macro players in the standoff—“pirates” and the U.S. Navy. At this point the Navy really flexes it muscle, literally and figuratively. We are barraged with comparisons between the two camps—the cool heads and the physical heft of the SEALsjuxtaposed with the emaciated Somalis and their frenetic outbursts. And with these comparisons any attempt to keep up with characterization dissolves. Muse, who was previously shown as an ambitious young man with a calculating intelligence is suddenly transformed into a naive tribesman, pleading for his “elders” to help end the standoff. For the next hour we are only given one hint to the fact that Muse is still a thinking man and not a cartoon. In an exchange with Phillips he says that he’s glad to see that the Navy has arrived, that he’ll go “to the U.S. now.” Is this a tongue-in-cheek reference to the certainty of traveling there in a body bag or is Muse fully aware of the fact that if he somehow makes out of his predicament alive, he’ll be tried in the U.S.–a fate preferable to death by the hands of the Navy or his superiors in Somalia?
The film wraps with a tear-jerking performance from Hanks, one that certainly leaves you sympathetic to Phillips and his experience as a hostage. This last scene brings the word “Oscar” to mind, but with the competition being so fierce this season, we’ll see if he gets a nod.