Trust on the High Seas
There are two realities in Captain Phillips that eventually converge. One is a blue filtered portrait of Americana: a large white house and a minivan nestled in a cloudy Vermont town. The other is yellow saturated landscape of sand and sea in Somalia, inhabited by makeshift huts and a dire sense of poverty. Soon enough, on the open waters of the Indian Ocean, representatives from both distinctions will meet on a floating ship. They will meet and open up a dialogue about their respective countries, about the inherent hypocrisy in a cargo ship’s mission, and about justice. This dialogue will take place with machine guns and yelling. It will create heroes and villains, categorize between honest shipmen and pirates, and assert who really has power in the world.
But the beauty of director Paul Greengrass’s latest film is that these delineations never feel completely realized. In a certain respect, this is less a patriotic embodiment of real life events than it is a geo-political critique about how we interpret a victory and who we consider to be our enemies. Greengrass, famous, or infamous depending on how you feel about his shaky camera work, achieved similar questions in the latter two films of the Bourne trilogy. His choppy, kinetic movement helped heighten drama before its arrival, often becoming a subversive style that mimicked the undercover, combative subjects his camera followed (similar to the passengers in his United 93). Here, by nature of his backdrop, the camera settles down from its sprinting and rides the waves of the ship, some calm, others wildly nauseating.
This is thoroughly watchable though. The basic event takes place in 2009 and is based on the story of Rich Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama that was hijacked by four Somali men. Early on, Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) leaves home with his wife (Catherine Keener), forcibly chatting about how times are changing for their children in an increasingly competitive work field. He flies to Oman where we next see him, inspecting the mammoth vessel with stacks of cargo attached, food and clothing bound for Mombassa to be spread to African countries. It’s when we see groups of Somali men aggressively vouching to be crewmembers aboard speedboats–like immigrant Mexicans showing white contractors their muscles– that a competitive workforce is put into perspective.
They are herded near the sea by militia kingpins and are told to hit the ocean to make money by boarding and holding ransom large cruisers in the area. They eat a plant called khat, consumed to suppress appetite, seen in their bony structures and severe glances. Eventually one of the speedboats, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and three others Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Najee (Faysal Ahmed) and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), appears on Phillips’ radar near the coast of Somalia. The foursome is undeterred by the Captain’s false radio call to local sea patrol and approach the ship’s stern, dodging the swells and swerves of the large vessel’s waves. They have crossed a point of no return and see a high value taking in front of them. This is their life.
Phillips is the kind of Captain you respect but resent. He literally runs a tight ship and splits up the crew’s coffee breaks with strict protocol after he receives emails about the threat of piracy near the coast of Cape Horn. They turn on the hoses around the boat’s perimeter and avoid incoming gunshots to the captain’s deck. Phillips orders his crew to hide in the boiling engine room. The Somalis attach their ladder and climb aboard and you can feel the spirit shift from routine safety drill to real life in an instant.
This movie lives on conceptions of leverage, trust, and loyalty. When guns are pointed in the cabin there is seriousness and grim weight in the Somalis’ intentions, but there is also the idea that Phillips is smarter than just giving in. He radios to his men in suggestive codes and plays naïve to Muse’s demands. These men are here for millions of dollars, and you can see their faces brighten when they first find out the Alabama is an American ship. Phillips only has $30,000 on board in cash, but they order for more, boasting about how they’ve scalped millions from other ships before. “Why are you here then?” Phillips bluntly asks. The silence that follows describes their current situation better than any response.
There is a disconnect though. Phillips is isolated from his crew huddled in the bowels of the Alabama and from his family. The pirates in their skiff are off the grid from their mother ship. A majority of commands are made into a radio and Phillips quickly turns into an anxious broadcaster, giving play by play as the pirates approach the vessel. You can see it in the face, through the Captain’s binoculars and in Muse’s bulging glare. It’s a constant, mutual analysis. Forget the guns, the whites of each other’s eyes are their most important weapons.
Greengrass paces Captain Phillips in such smooth strokes. The second half of the movie takes place in the Alabama’s lifeboat where the four take Phillips hostage after their mission on board finds disruptions. We consistently switch between its cramped quarters and the blue-lit interiors of U.S. Navy warships, which have quickly dispatched and begun to surround the small orange escape craft. You get to know these captors, in their panic and desperation. Phillips doesn’t experience Stockholm syndrome, but he does see their frightened humanity in the realm of imminent capture. At this point they are less pirates and more pawns of a system gone eerily wrong.
Hanks doesn’t do a lot but he does it so well. Under his grisly beard and spectacles he earns Muse’s trust, as well as Elmi’s after he treats an injury, and tries reasoning with them once he becomes aware of the Navy’s presence and the Seal teams’ crosshair focusing. His Oscar moment comes in the film’s final minutes, an emotional, psychological breakdown in front of a doctor. Through out the movie, Phillips repeatedly asks his crew, “Are you OK?” He’s asked the same question by the end and he doesn’t know how to answer. OK with what?
The breakdown comes after his captors have met powerfully visceral and visual ends. The tragic beauty to this movie, which Greengrass makes evident, is that you can’t feel that just the “bad guys” have lost, or that justice has really been achieved. Even when Captain Phillips safely succeeds, it still hurts.
Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures