“You’d think these trips would get easier, but they don’t.” Andrea (Catherine Keener) looks tired as she rides with her husband, Rich (Tom Hanks) to the airport. She’s a nurse, he’s a merchant mariner, and right now, as Captain Phillips lurches into first gear, these hardworking, decently all American adults are voicing Their Concerns. “The world is moving so fast. It’s not going to be easy for our kids,” he begins, then adds, his New England accent broadening with each syllable, that he’s worried about “the young guys coming up now,” woefully unaware that that “big wheels are turning.”
What follows might best be described as an illustration of how those big wheels are, you know, turning. And in their wake, all sorts of guys — young and old — are cast adrift. Just so, the titular captain is left at the airport by his wife, then makes his way to his cargo ship, the MV Maersk Alabama, at which point he begins inspecting unkempt corners and unlocked locks, and admonishing the crew to get the ship in shape, ordering them to drill as if they’re being boarded by pirates — a possible occurrence on their particular shipping route along the Somali coast. Even as his 20 or so crewmembers resent him, the early moments of Paul Greengrass’ movie establish Rich as a decent, by-the-book sort, quite aware of the big wheels and his own vulnerability before them.
That vulnerability becomes existential almost immediately. As the film is based on an 2009 incident, recounted in a book by the real life Captain Phillips, the contours of his story are known: his ship is indeed seized by a band of four teenaged pirates, and when their plan goes awry, they take off in the Alabama’s lifeboat with the captain as their hostage. Rather like the director’s United 93, also based on a true story, Captain Phillips posits noble, quick-thinking victims against desperate, brutal assailants.
The differences between the crews are dramatic. Rich’s sailors are familiar, they’re seasoned, thick-bodied, and visibly jaded, as well as unarmed, ordered only to use their hoses against intruders who might appear. The kids, by contrast, are frightening in every way (with no mention here of US or other Western powers’ part in their calamitous politics or poverty). Skittery and skinny, armed and untrained, they clamber up the side of Rich’s ship like alien creatures, undeterred by the hoses. Their resilience — alarming in this moment, viewed from the bridge, where Rich watches with binoculars — is of a piece with the brief background you’ve seen at film’s start. Following immediately on Rich and Andrea’s cumbersome reflections on the state of the world, the scene cuts to a yellowish desert-scape, rendered with as hand-held chaos. Here you see that the one of the pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), is under his own sorts of pressures, with people to feed and a boss to please. With little discussion — about turning wheels or anything else — he and his crew load their weapons and head into the crashing waves.
Muse’s crew (the other three pirates are played by Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali) chooses the Alabama pretty much by accident (while the film does note that the Alabama’s cargo includes food bound for “Africa,” a terrible real life irony, it omits a few true story details, for instance, accusations that Captain Phillips steered the Alabama 240 miles off the coast despite cautions to stay 600 miles away are omitted here). The seeming accident makes Muse’s collision with Rich look like a strange bit of fate. But for all the decisions they make, accidental or deliberate, Muse and Rich are both transformed in Captain Philips into occasions for a mediation on big wheels turning. While Rich orders his men to hide and so bears the brunt of the pirates’ frustrations and continued efforts to extract ransom long after they have even a slim chance for success, Muse persists in his efforts.
These failing efforts are structured as a series of scenes in which the increasingly desperate pirates search the Alabama for the hidden crew (producing little tension but one pirate’s injured, bloody foot), then board the tiny lifeboat, with Rich under gun. Here the US Navy enters the picture, embodied by a team of macho SEALS, and in particular by the “negotiator” who never intends to negotiate anything, played by Max Martini. At this point the plot turns into much more distressing, not only for the young pirates, whose ends are essentially ordained here, but also for Rich, who understands even if Muse and his fellows do not, that they will never reach Somalia.
Here it’s hard not to think of another movie based on a real life event that set the US military against Somali mayhem, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), based on Mark Bowden’s reporting. While that film also extolled the determination and courage of US fighters, the outcome was horrific for everyone involved, American and Somali. As that historical event helped to shape protocol going forward, at least one result is fictionalized in Captain Phillips, that is, the US meets this assault with overwhelming force, leaving no chance that an American representative — or body — will be available for televised abuse in the still failed state of Somalia.
That Rich knows this makes his situation dreadful. That Muse and the other pirates, variously frantic, naïve, and furious, don’t grasp what’s happening doesn’t make them sympathetic, however. What’s most worrying about Captain Phillips is its full-on celebration of the Navy’s hugeness: repeated shots show helicopters, ships, and boats all over the little orange lifeboat, with all manner of surveillance by cameras, binoculars, and microphones to ensure the Navy’s total control of each moment. On top of the sight of this vast and implacable machinery, the faceless, wholly professional snipers form a terrible opposition to the reckless, terrified, incoherent, and utterly exposed young Somalis, whose faces are persistently panicky.
The result is a complicated story confined within action movie conventions. Captain Phillips repeatedly underlines the Navy’s brilliance, and also the contest between Rich and Muse, their exchanged looks in a tight, hot space suggesting they might share a burden. But you know, from that early scene in Rich’s car, that they share nothing.