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Captain Phillips (2013)

Tom Hanks

By Jacob Mertens. 

A few months ago I was listening to NPR’s This American Life podcast, and I caught an episode that was devoted entirely to a hostage situation in Egypt’s Sinai desert. The story involved journalist Meron Estefanos stumbling onto a den of hostages all seeking rescue, unable to receive any help save from her. The men and women were savaged by impoverished malcontents who took their prisoners at random, hoping that someone would miss one of them enough to pay a ransom (assuming they had the means to do so). The report shed light on the extremes poverty can take, how violence and cruelty can bloom in the unseen corners of the world. Still, there was a refreshing lack of sanctimony with the telling, no need to wag a finger at the terrible men responsible or to grandstand. Estefanos recounted her story on the station, deliberate and concise, reserving her passion for sympathy. In short, I thought it an excellent and illuminating piece of nonfiction storytelling.

So why am I discussing a podcast at the beginning of a review for Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips? Simple, because it helps to demonstrate what this film does wrong. It would be a mistake to deride Captain Phillips from a functional standpoint; Greengrass has proven himself competent with a style worn well through two Bourne films: handheld camera, fast edits, close framing. The effect is disorientating yet visceral, and it works here. Instead, the trouble stems from a disturbing ideology that cannot help but infringe on this true-life narrative, one of nationalistic pride.

930353 - Captain PhillipsThe film begins with an American cargo ship navigating the Indian Ocean alone, separated from a pack of freighters, risking open waters in pirate territory for the sole reason of economic haste. After all, the quicker the ship can traverse the ocean and unload, the quicker it can get back out on the waters with another haul. The greed of this act is glossed over in Captain Phillips, becoming a conspicuous omission as the story develops. Inevitably, the ship is overrun with Somali pirates and a conflict between blue-collar crew and gun-wielding interlopers unfolds. The contest of wills never manifests in a meaningful way though, because the audience is not meant to identify with the pirates or their plight.

Despite some undeniable camera presence, particularly regarding pirate captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the Somalians are, for a large part of the film, shown as weak, ill-tempered, and foolish. Perhaps this would be less of an offense if they were left alone as shallow characters with ambiguous motivations; you could at least argue bad writing over a need to affirm American might and morality above those of less fortunate origins. Instead, the film tries to build the criminals up, Muse more so than anyone, as cagey and uncommonly bright. When Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) attempts to convince Muse that all the wealth in the ship lies solely in the vault, the man does not fall for the deceit. When Phillips tries to dissuade Muse from searching the engine room—the ship’s crew is in hiding there—Muse sniffs out the ruse immediately. However, the pirate captain’s successes in the film are short lived and he is soon brought down as an incompetent man whose dream to live an American life (a predictable yet jarring catalyst for his crimes) must be squashed.

Phillips 3Following tense exchanges between the disparate captains, the pirate takeover soon devolves into a hostage situation. Muse’s men are ambushed by Captain Phillips and his crew, Muse himself is mugged in the dark engine room and taken at knife point, and the harrowed outlaws narrowly escape onto the ship’s lifeboat with their lives, taking Phillips along as a prisoner consolation prize. Reduced to wounded animals more than wily captors, the pirates race to Somalia’s borders, but do not glimpse the shoreline before the US Navy intercedes. As negotiations begin, the pirates bicker amongst themselves, they pace the floors of the small boat in a state of shock, and they never clue in on duplicities played by Captain Phillips and the navy. For instance, they do not notice or care when Phillips informs the Navy where he is located in the lifeboat, surely in case the boat is breached, nor do they force him to sit elsewhere.

At some point during this downward spiral, Muse waxes nostalgic about how he has always longed to see America. When the negotiator attempts to speak to Muse in his native language, he purposefully maintains a conversation in English. And in retrospect, the man has spent much of the film outwardly hostile to his own people, maintaining an air of superiority, while giving Captain Phillips a respect that has not been earned. Given his preferences, and the way he stands out from his own as a (mostly) clear voice of strength and reason, it is not much of a stretch to see these qualities as an appropriation of the country he idolizes. Even so, Muse is not American, he is not even white, and so the film cannot allow his mimicry to come off as anything but a shallow imitation.

Phillips 4It should be said that I am not one who typically tries to read into politics with a narrative, but for Captain Phillips a political—and social, and cultural—reading forces itself. With these Somalians, I see the gross myth of a third world that unconsciously fetishizes America. They idolize the country’s success (read also: greed) but are unable to emulate these ideals without risking moral perversion—in this case, piracy. In their hands, the American dream becomes something ugly, and thus the film willfully ignores that this fabled dream was always a little unsightly to begin with. After all, there is both beauty and terrible abuse that follows an individualistic pursuit of happiness and wealth; to ignore this is to ignore the lessons of recent history.

Some may argue that the filmmakers harness an objective truth, that in many parts of the world American culture still inspires envy and admiration. I won’t argue this point, but I will admit the notion seems more dated with every year that passes. In light of the faded American empire, a more dispassionate telling is needed here. I cannot stomach watching emaciated Somalians shuffle across a lifeboat, unnerved and waiting for their doom, while their captain praises the land of their would-be assassins. I cannot stand to see how their piteous downfall is given political intonations, an avowal of American principles that tragically cannot translate to another culture with its integrity intact. Captain Phillips seems to believe itself a cautionary tale, a crime begets collapse storyline that audiences have seen a hundred times now. But within that story, there is an inherent responsibility which the filmmakers ignore. Namely, when you have two cultures at war in a film, regardless of who is in the right and who is in the wrong, there is a need for sensitivity in their respective portrayals. Instead, we see the Somalians crumble into a pathetic heap, we see how their pursuers refuse to relent, and a lot of Americans get to leave the theater feeling smug for some unknown reason.

Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.

6 Comments for “Captain Phillips (2013)”

  1. I hear that ‘A Hijacking’ is the better film in regards to dramatizing Somali Piracy, though I have yet to view it; it was recently released on home video. I did see ‘Captain Phillips’, though, and would disagree that the pirates were entirely unsympathetic. I found Muse to be fascinating character to watch, and despite his spurts of animosity, he was not a ‘villain’ I genuinely wants to die. Najee was the only truly deplorable person in the film, while Bilal was one Somali I actually hoped might make it out of the lifeboat, as he was the more compassionate of the captors. Despite this, I will admit that I did not care too much for their plight, as I believe that even the most desperate of circumstance does not excuse holding innocent people at gunpoint, threatening their lives should a ransom not be met.

    Still, I believe much of your issue with this film lies with something you did not particularly touch on – which is that it is a biopic of sorts, telling the tale from the perspective of the titular character, who in real life has stated in regards to whether or not he ever empathized with his captors: “That never entered my mind. We were always adversaries. I thought it was important to make sure we both knew we were adversaries in that. I thought that was important for me and my survival. There was no Stockholm syndrome.”

    Does it excuse the lack of a more even-handed account? No, not really, but it goes a long way in explaining it. I had much the same problem with David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’, a film I am incredibly fond of in spite of one major aspect that holds it back: it is told from the perspective of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Given his involvement in the case and the best-selling book that resulted from it, it seems only logical that Fincher would turn to him as the median through which to tell the story. However, those more intimately familiar with the case (such as myself) know Graysmith to be, at times, unreliable in regards to the facts. That, and his obsession with Arthur Leigh Allen leads the viewer to believe by the end of the film that Allen must have the Zodiac killer, when the truth is that to this day his identity remains uncertain, and that many no longer believe Allen to be the prime suspect.

  2. Steven, a couple quick rebuttals if I could. It’s not my contention that the Somalians are depicted as unsympathetic really, more that they are brought up only to be torn down and that their best qualities are distinguished as a kind of mimicry of those from America. I also believe the film does not simply ignore the Somalians’ perspectives, but belittles and marginalizes them–be that a conscious or unconscious choice. I understand your point about the perspective of Captain Phillips, but a film is never going to provide a perfect marriage between an individual’s point of view and the events around him (not unless the film is something extraordinary like Diving Bell and the Butterfly). This film has no excuse, especially since it featured cutaway scenes to “establish” the pirates in the early going (notably, this was more a device of tension than character development, but the groundwork was there for the taking). And again, I want to harp on the responsibility of the filmmakers. I don’t care about what Captain Phillips felt for his captors, ultimately the filmmakers are choosing to make this film and choosing to portray a culture other than their own. That task requires a clearheadedness that I do not see on display here. Instead, I see a distinct American perspective that forges ahead without sensitivity or insight for others, a perspective born of pride.

  3. A clear sign of how little the filmmakers cared about portraying the Somalis accurately and fairly is the way the real Muse was transformed in the film. In reality he was a kid, 16-18 years old, 5-foot-2, practically illiterate and spoke not a word of English. Here he is played by a relatively tall 28-year-old who speaks decent English. As a parallel to the treatment of the Somalis, the film is clearly also anti-labour (this film reminds me very much of the best foreign movie Oscar winner the other year, In A Better World). Anyone interested can compare Phillip’s story to that of the crew here for instance: http://nypost.com/2013/10/13/crew-members-deny-captain-phillips-heroism/

  4. I would wager that it is an unintentional side effect, as with the scenes set on the Somali coast, there begins a noticeable effort to humanize the pirates; to show the conditions in which they live and provide a basic understanding of why they are resorting to piracy. It is a feeble attempt, admittedly, and ignores much of the bigger picture, so to speak, but I do not feel that their portrayal here and throughout the film is necessarily representative of some sort of jingoism. Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, has stood beside Greengrass in defending their depiction, and in perusing interviews with the director, he has stated that his intent was to portray the Somalians with the necessary sensitivity. Perhaps, though, the film could have benefited from cutting out the juxtaposition that occurred in the beginning? If, instead, we were only granted insight into Phillips’ life and the pirates were absent from the narrative until spotted at sea, racing for the freighter, would it have been nearly as troubling?

    As far as the idea that American culture still inspires envy in some parts of the world, Abdi did state in one interview that “People in Somalia have this idea that if you go to America, you’re American rich,” though he fled the country when he was only six years old – perhaps it is not viewed in quite the same light nowadays. And with the that in mind, though you say that this notion feels more and more dated as the years go by, the events depicted in the film took place in 2009. Not ancient history by any means, but much has happened in that brief span of time. Finally, in regards to the nature of the four pirates themselves, it is a shame that the film never makes it clear that these are but young adults – all aged between 17 and 19 years old; their mindset does not seem all that unrealistic when this is taken into account.

  5. Bah, Daniel beat me to the age bit. You really get the sense that these men are mostly adults – especially Najee – but the truth is that they were all kids (Phillips’ does mention this to one of them in the film, saying he’s too young to get caught up in such things, or something to that effect, but that is rather inadequate).

    I read that article at the NY Post after seeing the film, and it is very interesting how much his crew contests Phillips’ version of events. It reaffirms my believe that perhaps the biggest mistake in the production of the film was approaching it as an adaptation of his book – and thus telling the tale primarily from his perspective.

    Apparently there is also a documentary in the works that aims to shed more light on the subject, titled ‘The Smiling Pirate’.

  6. First, “wants,” and now, “believe.”

    We need an Edit button.

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