I Just Saw ‘Captain Phillips’ and Couldn’t Wait to See the Pirates Shot Dead
Despite the film’s attempts to make me feel guilty about it
by MATTHEW GAULT
“You aren’t just a fisherman,” Richard Phillips says to his captor — an emaciated Somali pirate named Muse — as the pirate holds a gun to his forehead. The gun comes away, but the impression the barrel makes on Phillips’ skin lingers. The angry red outline of the hole that delivers death. The flesh will return to normal, but Phillips will not.
This is Captain Phillips, the newest film from Paul Greengrass, the director who gave us Jason Bourne and United 93. It tells the story of, well, Richard Phillips, the man in charge of MV Maersk Alabama during its 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates.
With a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and early Oscar buzz, Captain Phillips is the latest ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that’s become a rote formula for the studios. It’s a solid film — tense and well acted — but it breaks down when it shies away from creating powerful mythology and tries to create sympathetic villains.
But another mythic figure casts a shadow on the movie, waiting in the background with expensive gizmos and high-powered sniper rifles. Anyone familiar with the actual event knows how the movies ends, and I anticipated the arrival of the military with more glee than is appropriate.
The Navy SEALs — especially those ubiquitous and terrifying members of the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group — are now mythological figures. The reasons are clear. They’ve assisted in the rescue of various kidnapped peoples, fought in the bloodiest battles against the Taliban and killed Osama bin Laden. They’ve become the heroes of video games, the subject of blockbuster movies and their exploits are widely-reported news (even when they come up short).
Captain Phillips treats them like the faceless kill-bots of the U.S. Navy. They descend from the sky, speak only when they must, kill without feeling and return to the shadows when their job is complete. Note that the camera shies from their faces, a heavy blur coating the lens during the only scene where a SEAL’s face is visible.
The pendulum has swung. Gone are the muddled and conflicted soldiers of the Vietnam War as portrayed in Platoon and Apocalypse Now. Swept aside are the corrupt, bumbling and mistake ridden-military depicted in Rules of Engagement, The General’s Daughter and Black Hawk Down.
We have come full circle, returned to those days after World War II when the American soldier walked the screen full of John Wayne machismo and self-assured glory. Movie soldiers now are either cowboys as in The Hurt Locker, a noble band of brothers as seen in the upcoming Lone Survivor, or the ruthless and efficient American muscle as depicted in Captain Phillips. For better or worse, soldiers are cinema heroes again.
Romancing the pirate
The villains of the film — and they are villains, let’s keep that in mind — are the pirates. Gone is the swashbuckling, morally ambiguous rascal that stole our hearts and our wallets in the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean. No, these pirates are real, gritty and violent.
Captain Phillips attempts to make the pirates more than one-dimensional black-hats. The setup is good, the film showing us the depressed seaside village and the aggressive warlord (I couldn’t help thinking of him as the pirate king) demanding his subordinates take to the seas for a fresh bounty. These Somalis are desperate, hungry, hollow-eyed, khat-chewing casualties of complicated geopolitical situations.
The complicated topic of why the pirates exist is skirted, the movie simply doesn’t have the time to go into it. This is an action-thriller after all. And so the success at creating sympathetic villains is mild. After leaving the squalor of their home and taking to the sea, the pirates are rendered as stock characters from a John Ford western. I imagine their names on the first draft of the script read, “Captain, Loose Cannon, Pilot and The Kid.”
The real villain here is the world these men inhabit. The concern over money is ever present and the film goes through pains to show how both captains are just trying to do their jobs. Muse — the captain of the pirates — explains to Phillips that he has bosses, and those bosses have rules. “We all got bosses,” Phillips replies. The subtext being, that no boss is worth putting others in danger.
I remembered the scene, earlier in the movie, when Phillips chides his union crew members about taking too long on their coffee break. I also recalled allegations from the real-life Phillips’ former crew members that the captain put their lives at risk by sailing too close to the Somali coast while ignoring multiple warnings of pirate activity in the area.
Indeed, we all have bosses, and this unseen authority is the implied villain of the movie. But it’s hard to be upset with a force that’s never visible, and despite winning the sympathies of the films protagonist, I couldn’t get behind feeling bad for the pirates. I couldn’t not see them as the villains. Unpleasant circumstances aside, they still boarded a ship with weapons and took hostages. They chewed khat, wore scarred faces and hurt people. They’re the bad guys, not Jack Sparrow.
Tale of trauma
The real Richard Phillips survived a great trauma. His ship was boarded, his welfare threatened and his life bartered for cash. The strongest moment of the film comes during the final moments when Hanks — covered in the blood of his aggressors and shivering while a Navy nurse attends to his shock — captures the emotional impact of survival and the withdrawal of adrenaline in its aftermath.
I came away thinking about the way people deal with trauma like that. Richard Phillips survived a harrowing nightmare and walked away. He wrote a book and that book gave him some distance from the events and allowed him control through narration. Now there’s a movie starring Tom Hanks and early talk that Hanks will win an award for pretending to go through the trauma that Phillips experienced.
Decades from now, a busy history teacher will show her class Captain Phillips on a rainy day late in the semester. “These things used to happen,” she’ll say, before she goes on to lead a discussion on the geopolitics of the early 21st century. Captain Richard Phillips, the man, will be long gone and his pain with it.
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