Captain Phillips (2013) tells the true story of Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks), the captain of a large commercial cargo ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates while sailing around the Horn of Africa in 2009. The story of Phillips, who saves his crew by slyly getting the pirates off the cargo boat then himself when he is kidnappedby the retreating pirates and held hostage in a covered lifeboat, is compelling enough, but what unexpectedly emerges from Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is a feeling for the pirates of, if not exactly sympathy, at least understanding. It’s not a simple action story of good guys and bad guys. The message seems to be, refreshingly, that people are decent and this is the story of people trying to be decent when pushed into extreme circumstances.
That’s not to say that the movie gives the pirates a free pass. It’s an extreme circumstance their actions created and Captain Phillips doesn’t forget that, but it offers a counterpart to the “some men just want to watch the world burn” meme that has dominated American action movies of late. Nobody wants to watch the world burn here; people simply do what they believe they must.
Part of this has to do with the movie being presented in inverse to the Die Hard (1988) formula. Often movies like this have well-organized villains with flawless plans who forgot about the one man who could spell their undoing. These pirates, led by Muse (real-life Somali refugee Barkhad Abdi), forgot about everything. Their plan is hopelessly doomed from the start; they have weapons but the cargo ship is huge, filled with a crew in the dozens (there are only four pirates), a crew that has knowledge of the ship they can only guess at. When they kidnap Phillips onto the lifeboat, the writing truly gets on the wall as the Navy has them surrounded and they have nowhere to go and no way to bargain. This hopelessness gives the impression of desperation, not evil, and while they are offered repeated deals, compromises and ways out, their refusal to take them becomes sad.
However, while their plan may be dead on arrival, that’s of little consolation to Phillips who may be forced to go down with them. In college, I had a job delivering sub sandwiches. If a late-night delivery took you to a creepy location or a dangerous side of town, there was some comfort in knowing there were many records of where you were and that any murderer would unfailingly be caught. However, I imagine it wouldn’t mean much to you if your killer was caught once you’ve been murdered. Phillips watches his captors get increasingly desperate, always with a calming, polite veneer. When they first take the cargo ship, he coolly keeps his crew alive while relaying to them ways to sabotage the pirates. On the lifeboat, he reminds the pirates of their diminishing odds as an appeal to their logic and better natures, not as a gloat. He offers medical help when one of the pirates is injured and when it seems all is lost, he almost seems like he genuinely feels bad for what will happen to his captors, even after they’ve done away with him. Hanks is magnetic as a man of competence and sympathy; he spends the entire movie doing the right thing both morally and strategically so that when it’s over and he’s in a shocked stupor, you almost feel as if his state is produced by some exhaustion of the soul, as an overworked muscle might turn to jelly.
The other great performance is by Abdi, making his screen debut. The bad choices are his own, but here is a man who doesn’t want to hurt anyone, acts a little tougher than he is, and is dismayed to discover the trouble he’s caused. Abdi has an ability to express both heedless pride and sincere regret on the same face. His desperation keeps him going but his respect for life keeps him from going too far. Abdi and Hanks engage in a duet of nuances as they each try to guide each other to an outcome in which the other will remain unharmed without ever stating that that’s what they’re after. When Muse is caught and the ordeal is over, he pitifully inquires, “How about my friend?” The Navy tells him that his compatriots have all been killed but that Phillips was rescued. Could Phillips be the friend Muse was referring to?