“Back when I started out, if you kept your head down, did your work, you’d make captain one day,” Captain Richard Phillips says (more or less) to his wife while driving to the airport as the movie bearing his name begins, “It’s not like that anymore. There’s so much competition. Fifty guys competing for one job.”
At the time, Captain Phillips’ conversation with his wife about his son, while pertinent to the world we live in, seems disconnected from the events we know are to come, the hijacking by Somali pirates of the cargo ship Richard Phillips captains. Then, the film cuts to Somalia and shows a crowd of young men Captain Phillips’ son’s age competing for the job of hijacking Captain Phillips’ ship. So, it’s not that the young Somalians are like us. They are us. Their socio-economic options are just fewer.
If all Captain Phillips did was show us that our “enemies” are not the monsters the demagogues make them out to be, but show us instead that they are just kids trying to make their way in an increasingly competitive world, the movie would be worthwhile. Personifying threats to our economic security as inhuman pests allows us to do terrible things to them with a clear conscience. It gives us a competitive advantage, no doubt, but competition isn’t the Great Good in the world. It is simply the base inclination out of which the worst of nature lives. We are more than mere nature. We are human, or at least we can be when encouraged toward human-ness.
As Christians, we believe that Christ is fully human in a way that we most often are not. One of the defining characteristics of Christ’s humanity is his compassion, so to be more compassionate is to be more Christ-like, more human. Captain Phillips encourages us to be more compassionate, to be more human, to see our enemies as more human, and to therefore become even more human ourselves.
But that’s not all Captain Phillips accomplishes in its lively 134 minute run time. It is also terrifically thrilling. Greengrass’ hand-held style (reportedly adopted early in his career because he couldn’t afford a tripod) makes this movie whose outcome we know that’s set in international waters about cargo ships and the U.S. Navy feel incredibly urgent and intimate. Tom Hanks manages to disappear into his role in a way he hasn’t for a while, and that enables us to identify with him (more on that in a moment). Barkhad Abdi’s pirate Muse doesn’t feel like an alien threat but rather like a kid from a few blocks over, albeit one who hasn’t yet shed his native accent, and, depending on where you live, that might also be true of the actual kids a few blocks away from where you live.
In its final moments, Captain Phillips accomplishes something that makes me value it even more, something that made we want to meditate on it afterwards and watch it again, something that elevates it above even other accomplished cinematic fare. SPOILERS follow, though given that the events the movie depicts are so well known, do SPOILERS even count in this case?
Captain Phillips is kind towards its antagonists, the Somali pirates. It shows their humanity. It also shows them to be desperate to survive and prone to violence in their desperation. Violence has become their only resort, but that violence is still criticized by the movie. Yes, we should care about these men, but yes, what they are doing is wrong.
Captain Phillips is also, of course, kind towards Captain Phillips and the other American hostages. It shows their resourcefulness, their fear, and their compassion toward their captors. At the same time, the movie also depicts the might of the American military. Three gigantic gunships surround and monitor the Somalians’ one small lifeboat. SEALs descend from the sky like angels of death. Lit by green and blue LEDs and speaking only of protocols, the American military is shown to be a force of mechanistic terror. There is never a moment of doubt that this story is not going to end well for the Somalians.
Captain Phillips may be a complicated movie, but one thing is absolutely clear – don’t mess with the Empire.
Most remarkably, though he is saved, things don’t exactly end well for Captain Phillips either. In many movies like this, following the death of his captors, our hero would walk triumphantly onto the deck of the battleship, secure in his status as an American citizen and ready to take whatever the non-American world might throw at him next. At the end of this movie, our hero is in shock. He struggles to remember his name. His body is covered in both his own blood and the blood of his captors. He shakes. He wails.
As a picture of life post-9/11, Captain Phillips shows us what it’s like to be taken hostage by fear. Tom Hanks, in shedding himself of his stardom for the role, allows us to put ourselves in his seat in that medical bay in shock as the movie ends. He wails for us, because life doesn’t often allow us the opportunity.
Since Spetember 11, 2001, we have been held hostage by terror, both from abroad and domestically. We have to take our shoes off at the airport whether we’re flying from New York to Beirut or from Des Moines to Dubuque. We worry about both the latest transmission from Al Quaeda lest our country be bombed and what we post on Facebook lest Homeland Security bust down our front doors. We’ve lost our sense of safety. We need to grieve that loss instead of posturing and blustering about as if nothing is wrong.
Captain Phillips, in its final moments, as a culmination of all that has come before, gives us that opportunity. I encourage you to sit in the theater after it’s over and face that fear. Keep the film in mind as you drive home. Allow those thoughts to lead you into prayer. Ask God, your family and friends, and your church community to share in your grief. Allow this to be the beginning of the process of coming out of the state of shock we’ve been living in since 2001. Let Captain Phillips remind you of your humanity and the humanity of every other person on the planet. Push through toward the perfect humanity, the perfect love of Christ which casts out fear once and for all.