Saturday, August 30, 2014

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013): “Maybe in America”

The core story of Captain Phillips is well known.  The ship led by Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) is overtaken by a handful of Somali pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi).  We learn quite early in the film that Muse is probably too decent of an individual to be heading up such an undertaking.  He frankly had little choice given the extreme poverty he lived under in his homeland and given the power the warlords have to take revenge on one’s loved ones if you do not do their bidding.

The boat leaving from Oman to Kenya was easy picking for the pirates.  Why the boat was so isolated from other American ships in the region is never explained.  Overcoming one challenge after another, the pirates eventually get on board.  Though the Americans are able to put up a resistance and manage to badly cut the foot of a teenage pirate named Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) by planting broken glass in a dark corridor, the pirates do eventually force Captain Phillips to go with them within the pirates’ smaller boat.  The plan is now to hold Captain Phillips for ransom.

The kidnapping generates a U.S. naval response and this response causes the Somali warlord in charge of the operation to abandon Muse and the three other pirates on board.  Though Captain Phillips fate remains uncertain at this point, there is little chance left that the four pirates will ever see their homeland again.  Muse does what he can.  At the same time the tension is becoming so unbearable on board his small boat that he has to do all he can to prevent another pirate named Najee (Faysal Ahmed) from killing Captain Phillips.  In many respects Najee is more realistic about the circumstances than is Muse.  He knows that the chances of the pirates surviving this ordeal are extremely slim and that killing Captain Phillips may be the only small satisfaction for revenge that he has left.  Still, Najee holds off on any killing.  Najee is intelligent enough to understand that there would be no chance of survival if Captain Phillips was killed. 

For whatever reason, Muse feels that he can negotiate with naval personnel to arrange for a pickup of a supposed ransom.  Najee tells him it is an ambush, but Muse goes with American personnel.  Muse never sees his three companions again.  Snipers eventually get their scopes on the three remaining pirates and take them all out at once.  This had been the strategy of the navy almost from the beginning because they never intended to allow the Somalis to reach the shore.  We learn that Muse – the lone surviving pirate – is eventually sentenced to 33 years in prison.

As much as a movie is probably capable of doing, the film Captain Phillips almost can make American audiences feel sympathy for what might seem like lawless Somali’ pirates.  Muse is portrayed as humane as one possibly could be under his circumstances.  When Captain Phillips attempts to suggest to Muse that there has to be more for someone like him than kidnapping other people, Muse thoughtfully responds: “Maybe in America.” Because Captain Phillips provides first aid to Bilal concerning his infected foot, Bilal in turn appears sorry for the predicament that Captain Phillips has been placed.  We even understand the anger and frustration of Najee when we view the stark circumstances he is facing.

The force of this movie owes almost everything to the acting ability of Barkhad Abdi (a newcomer to film) as Muse.  Right from the beginning of the movie we understand what he is thinking and what motivates him.  Also, the story and dialogue at least let us know the extreme poverty these pirates have faced.  And though I’ve often questioned the type of roles that Tom Hanks has taken on, his depiction of Captain Phillips – especially at the end of the film when he is shaken up by the killing of the three pirates – lets us know that there was a connection between him and his captors.

America has now been going on for decades struggling with questions concerning our involvement in the Mideast and North African region.  The official response has been mostly muddled at best.  Attempts to be saviors in the region have been met with scorn.  Efforts to withdraw our presence have proven futile.  There should be no self-assurance on the part of anyone when it comes to such baffling circumstances.

Because so much of our attention has continued to be focused upon foreign policy in this region since at least September 11, 2001, I’d suggest that the three most important movies released during the last half-dozen years would be The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and now Captain Phillips.  All three films focused upon international terrorism and the U.S. military’s response.  The first two were directed by Kathryn Bigelow and generated about as much controversy as success.  Captain Phillips, a 134 minute film that moves well and was directed by Paul Greengrass, has been much more popular for moviegoers than these other two because it has not taken nearly as many risks. At the same time, the film doesn’t dehumanize the Somali pirates.  The attempt to look at the story from both sides makes it an exception among most movies.

August 30, 2014

© Robert S. Miller 2014