This review contains spoilers.
Captain Phillips: There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.
Muse: Maybe in America.
I’m usually not big on Hollywood blockbuster films, but I’d read a couple of good reviews of this one, and was interested in learning more about the issue of Somali piracy. So I thought I’d give Captain Phillips a shot. While the film starts out well and has a few strong moments, ultimately Captain Phillips fails to deal with the complexity of the situation. Here we are presented with yet another portrait of America (the brave, the good) in contrast with the developing world (the poor, the misguided, the pitiable).
Captain Phillips tells the story of the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. cargo ship. The film is largely based on the account of the real Captain Richard Phillips, taken from his book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.
There are a number of things to like about Captain Phillips. The realistic filming style (shaky cameras, long shots, minimal music) creates a tense, suspenseful atmosphere, and successfully draws the viewer into the story. Tom Hanks is very good as Phillips – particularly at the very end of the film, in what is apparently a largely improvised scene where the Captain breaks down and is tended to by a doctor on board the U.S. Navy ship. Hanks’s performance in this scene is so raw and real it almost had me in tears. Barkhad Abdi is also excellent as the desperate pirate captain, Muse.
As an escapist action-thriller, Captain Phillips ticks all the boxes. However, a film that centres on an ongoing issue with social and political ramifications that are felt globally has a responsibility to explore the intricacy of its subject matter. Captain Phillips fails in this regard.
Captain Phillips starts out well (apart from the awkward dialogue between Phillips and his wife as they drive to the airport). There is a lengthy sequence early on that shows the pirates preparing to set sail from the Somali coast. This scene works well, and it gave me hope that the film would continue to present detailed insights into the lives of the pirates. However, this did not turn out to be the case. The film’s perspective quickly tips in the direction of Phillips, and America in general (as this review in The Guardian points out, the real hero of Captain Phillips turns out to be the U.S. Navy). Granted, the film does make a few stabs at understanding the pirates’ motivations – there is a very brief mention of the struggling fishing industry in Somalia, and Muse mentions once or twice his enslavement (for all intents and purposes) to a brutal warlord. Some effort is also made to present the pirates as sympathetic. One of the pirates is very young (no more than sixteen), and when he is wounded Phillips helps him. There are also a couple of shots of Muse towards the end of the film – just after he has been told by the Navy that his friends are all dead and he is going to face trial in America – that are quite heartbreaking, and are clearly meant to encourage the viewer to feel sorry for the pirate captain. That being said, these moments are too few and far between, and all of them are presented through the lens of American sympathy. The message the viewer gets goes something along the lines of: “These pirates have such hard lives. They are poor and misguided, and what they’re doing is kind of understandable. It’s so nice of us Americans to still feel sorry for them after all the bad things they’ve done. And we’ve also got really awesome military technology. There’s no need to think about the larger issues here, or America’s role in them. Go home now and feel good about yourselves.”
Captain Phillips is also far too flawless to be a likeable character. He is a Hollywood interpretation of a person that is not only boring to watch but also fails to reflect the truth. Numerous members of the real crew of the Maersk Alabama have condemned Phillips’s behaviour on the ship. Apparently Phillips had been warned to stay at least 600 miles off the Somali coast (he was no more than 300 miles off), and was aware of 16 separate attacks on container ships in the area in the three weeks prior to his own ship’s hijacking.
In the end, while Captain Phillips makes a few attempts at being balanced, it fails to recognise the bigger picture. As The Guardian review notes, there is no recognition that what this film ultimately amounts to is four desperate boys pitted against the Navy SEALS. Or perhaps America-The-Global-Superpower against the developing world.
But don’t despair. There are a number of alternative perspectives out there. The Smiling Pirate – a documentary currently in production – will strive to tell Muse’s story. The Vice short film Fishing Without Nets (director Cutter Hodierne) is also worth checking out. (The short film won the 2012 Sundance grand jury prize, and has since been made into a feature film that won the 2014 Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Film.) And then there is The Captain and His Pirate, a 2013 film about a German container ship that was also hijacked in 2009 for four months. This documentary interviews both German captain Krzysztof Kotiuk and pirate leader Ahado, in the time following their ordeal. (You can listen to an interview with Kotiuk on the Sunday Night Safran podcast). And finally, here is Southpark’s take on the relationship between Somali pirates and the U.S. Navy: . A little less serious, but perhaps sadly a little more realistic.
Captain Phillips was released in 2013, and was directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, Green Zone, United 93). The real Muse is currently serving a 34 year sentence in the U.S. At the time of his trial there was some debate over his exact age, but he was probably no more than 18.