Captain Phillips: Nobody Wins

“I’m the captain now,” says that pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) in a moment that would surely become iconic had Captain Phillips not been released at a time when the easy availability of infinite content often makes it difficult to remember what film I saw yesterday, never mind the one I’m writing about now.

(There were 189 films theatrically released in the US in 1983, and there will be 317 in 2013 – so when a film captures the public consciousness these days, we may assume that it really does indicate something important. After seeing 12 Years a Slave, I think this year may be seeing the kind of contribution to cinema history that happens once in a generation, so that’s not to say that Captain Phillips isn’t any good, just that it’s out at the same time as a rare (for the multiplex) work of raw humanity that also has the potential to provoke social transformation.)

“I’m the captain now” – words spoken with violent authority by a physically unthreatening Somali pirate to a moderate hunk of Americana, Captain Rich Phillips, ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances, slightly overweight decent bloke, man in charge of a huge container ship, navigating his way through newly treacherous waters, earning danger money because the economy’s broken. It’s tough times for everyone, of course, and Captain Phillips’ challenging circumstances compare very well to Muse, eking out survival on the Somalian coast, living in a metal hut, threatened with violence if he doesn’t pay tribute to the local master. And so Captain Phillips and Muse meet at the axis of globalization and militarism and materialism and racism, each of them accepting risk for money, each of them backed up by guns, each of them afraid.

Captain Phillips is a compelling real-life thriller, directed by Paul Greengrass, the British former documentarian who makes the back and forth transition between factual dramatic reenactment (Bloody Sunday, United 93), and action genre reinvention (two of the Bourne films) look easy. I never met a Greengrass film that didn’t evince an attempt at serious critique of the powers that be mingled with some kind of evocation of why some people have less power than others.

Captain Phillips may be his most accessible ‘historical’ film, and its blockbuster pedigree proves that audiences are willing to be asked to think for themselves while being entertained. (Need extra evidence that box office success can go together with artistic quality while avoiding titillating violence? Ask yourself when was the last time you saw Dustin Hoffman fire a gun.)

Having said that, Captain Phillips is only really half – or maybe two-thirds – of a good movie, or at least of the great movie it could be. The critic Mark Cousins tweeted that he felt Captain Phillips was made with a microscope – such is the attention to forensic detail; but of course, with Tom Hanks as the central figure, the audience is bound to identify with the captain, and his story will get more attention than that of the guy driven by circumstantial havoc to stupid belligerence.

So while an establishing scene grants us brief access to Muse’s life, and the film does not portray the pirates as the kind of racist caricatures familiar from a century of cinematic portrayals of evil as coming only from the exotic, what would it have cost to spend twenty minutes in Somalia rather than five? Would it have been too much to have a flashback to Muse’s childhood, or a dream of the life he yearns for, or some more illustration of the geopolitical context in which people with nothing but fear and hope and guns decide to hijack what they must see as depersonalized money machines, tickets to the irony of an American Dream that is really an American lottery, that, it should go without saying, rarely favors Somali pirates?

Don’t get me wrong, Captain Phillips isn’t Argo, a presumably unwittingly Iranophobic film that ignores vast numbers of peaceful, fearful, repressed people in favor of portraying Iran as consisting only of rabid street mobs, secret police, and one innocent housekeeper, backdrops for the incredible journey of a well-groomed bouffant werewolf and his courageous white friends (friends whose terror was real, to be sure, but whose movie version doesn’t help anyone understand what Iran is really like any more than The Quiet Man gets Ireland). But neither is Captain Phillips fully the film this story deserved – there are still limits to what the money and power of Hollywood will allow even someone like Paul Greengrass to get away with.

What he does achieve is still remarkable – a movie about a real-life event whose outcome is already known, but which grips from moment one, a story that involves violence and the killing of “bad guys” but which refuses to make that violence cathartic, a piece of recent military history in which at least some attempts are made at limiting explosive rage, a fictionalized documentary about a sad and wounded person doing sad and wounded things, a fight which nobody wins.

When the climactic gun shots have been fired, and the power and retribution balance restored, Captain Phillips does something I’m not sure I’ve seen in cinema before – or certainly not seen done as well. In what may be the best five minutes of his career, Tom Hanks embodies the grief and shock that attends the experience of witnessing, and being rescued from, fatal violence. Most of us, we may give thanks, will never experience this first hand, so judging its veracity is a guessing game. But this semi-informed guesser was weeping with Tom Hanks. Weeping for his character’s sorrow, weeping for the shadow ways of the world, weeping for a lost opportunity for two men, a Muse and a Rich, to meet each other on the high seas, welcome the stranger that each represents and learn to do what we must all eventually do: sit down at the table, ask for what we need, and become friends instead of killing ourselves.