“They’re not here to fish.” Somali pirate Abduwali Muse (Academy Award nominee Barkhad Abdi, second from left) prepares to lead his less than reliable crew on what will turn out to be, for them, a tragic attack on an American container ship in the thrilling true-life adventure at sea Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks giving one of his greatest performances in the title role.
In Captain Phillips, the Navy Seals aren’t heroes.
They aren’t an awesome team of professional warriors.
The aren’t the embodiment of the might and majesty of the United States.
And they aren’t the cavalry rope-dropping to the rescue.
Nobody looks forward to their arrival. Nobody wants them there, least of all the United States Navy.
They are, simply, Death.
This must be understood going in or you might think you’re watching the wrong sort of movie, a simple true-life adventure at sea, which it is, in addition, or a triumphal celebration of America’s righteous wrath, which it’s definitely not.
Captain Phillips is a tragedy.
And Captain Phillips himself (in the person of Tom Hanks giving one of his greatest performances, his best in a very long time) isn’t the hero of the tragedy. He’s its witness. This is the tragedy of Muse, the chief pirate who, very briefly, takes Phillips’ container ship, the MV Maersk Alabama. Phillips is Starbuck to Muse’s Ahab, Marlowe to his Lord Jim. He’s on hand to watch as the hero magnificently but maddeningly pursues his self-aggrandizing obsession, to reach out on our behalf and try to pull him back, to offer both our sympathy and our censure and our warning, and then to mourn in advance as hubris and then fatalism and despair take hold and the hero embraces his fate.
This plays out beautifully in Captain Phillips but I’m thinking it might be obscured by the casting of Barkhad Abdi, who despite his own remarkable performance, in which he more than holds his own against Hanks, he often takes the screen from him, can’t take hold of our imaginations the way Hanks does by virtue of having become at this point in his career an icon.
Actually, I wonder if audiences might be so impressed by what good work Abdi does in his very first time in front of a camera that they might not notice what good work he’s doing, if you see what I’m saying.
While it was admirable and effective and the right thing for the filmmakers to have cast real Somalis to play Somalis, it might have been better from a pure storytelling point of view to have cast an actor with a more powerful movie star presence as Muse---Idris Alba, David Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Or Omar Sy, whom, if you don’t know who he is, you owe it to yourself to see in The Intouchables.---someone who could take up equal space in our heads with Hanks.
Or they could have gone the other way and cast a star who was less of an icon and more of a character actor as Phillips. Would have made a fitting final bow for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But then, I suppose, without Hanks, the movie might not have gotten made.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Captain Phillips would have been a better movie with a different Captain Phillips or a different Muse. It’s a very good movie as it is. It’s hard for me to imagine how it could have been better. I’m just trying to call attention to the fact that there’s something else going in Captain Phillips along with its being a gripping tale of a true life adventure on the high seas featuring a tour de force performance by Tom Hanks and I don’t want anyone to miss it.
Captain Phillips is Captain Phillips’ adventure, but it’s Muse’s story and his tragedy. And it’s important to note that within that tragic story the Seals do not appear as the good guys. They barely appear as guys, that is, as human beings, at all. They’re mostly seen as shapes in the dark. They’re an outcome not a solution. They are, as I said, Death.
The closer they get to the scene, the more we dread their arrival. Director Paul Greengrass has us rooting for what we know happened not to happen.
Captain Phillips is the story of a brave, daring, resourceful, and intelligent young man who makes a fateful decision out of anger and vanity and finds himself trapped and forced to take on the role of hero as his only way out---“Look at me….Look at me…I’m the captain now.”---knowing he’s not up to it and more likely than saving him and his crew it will lead to their destruction.
My Lord Jim reference is apt in a number of ways, but here’s one: like Jim, Muse jumps. Unlike Jim, he jumps the other way, onto the ship, impelled by courage and a sense of duty (and ego) instead of fear and an instinct for self-preservation.
In the most thrilling scene in the movie, Muse skippers his small boat through the jets of water from the fire hoses that are the Maersk Alabama’s only defense against pirates and, while both boats are moving at full speed, he and his small band leap onto the ladders they’ve hooked to the larger ship’s side and scramble aboard. It’s as daring and audacious as anything you’d see in a traditional pirate swashbuckler made even more exciting by its being true.
But the reason Muse and his three-man crew are taking such a risk and going it on their own is that Muse is determined to show up a rival pirate with his courage and skill. It’s an act of vainglory and as soon as he makes it, the Seals are on their way and Muse has doomed himself and his men.
“You can’t win,” Phillips says to Muse at one point, trying to persuade him to take the thirty grand in the ship’s safe and go while he still can. “The Navy isn't going to let you win. They would rather sink this boat than let you win.”
What Phillips doesn’t grasp---what he can’t grasp---is that Muse starts from the position of having already lost, of having been born into that loss. There’s no winning for him in his life as it is or as it’s likely to continue to be. That’s why he’s a pirate.
It’s intrinsic to the story and to Muse’s and Phillips’ characters that Phillips, a kind-hearted, intelligent, well-meaning man, can’t get his head around what Muse’s life is like. He can’t imagine a life without options, without at least small wins on a daily basis. He can’t imagine what it’s like not to be an American.
Captain Phillips opens with Phillips at home in his picturesque farmhouse in Vermont as he’s packing up to head off to the airport and fly to Oman to take command of the Maersk Alabama. His wife Andrea (Catherine Keener in a brief but emotionally effective cameo in which her face is almost never shown) goes with him to the airport and on the drive they have a meandering but anxiety-ridden conversation ostensibly about how their kids are doing at school and their uncertain prospects for the future. But what they’re really talking about is their dread of separation. After twenty-odd years of marriage, they still hate it when they have to be apart because of his job and what we’re being told is, despite their worries, the Phillips have a happy marriage and a comfortable and comforting home and family life.
The scene switches to Muse’s village in Somalia, and we see at a glance that he has none of that. He has little to call his own, not even a few hours to himself to catch up on some sleep. What he has is work. On some days that means fishing. Today it means piracy.
Back again to Phillips as he arrives at his work. The Maersk Alabama is essentially a giant floating warehouse. The bridge is as clean, shiny, well-organized, well-staffed, and technologically up to date, not to mention as high up, as an office in midtown Manhattan.
Muse’s office is an open skiff with a balky outboard engine staffed by an unreliable crew of three, a frightened teenager, an easily irritated psychopath, and a competent but not noticeably intelligent mechanic and pilot.
(Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali.)
Later, when the highjacking is beginning to go awry and Phillips again tries to persuade Muse his best option is to get while the getting is good, Muse says he can’t give up now, he has bosses he has to answer to. Phillips, thinking he’s found a way to establish a sympathetic connection between them, says, “We all got bosses,” and it’s a wonder Muse doesn’t fall on the deck laughing.
Phillips’ bosses don’t arrive for breakfast meetings with teams of guards brandishing automatic weapons in armored SUVs trailed by trucks with mounted machine guns. They give Phillips his instructions by email and not at gunpoint.
Once Greengrass establishes this gap between the two men, he never tries to bridge it. Phillips and Muse never bond. They never even begin to like or respect each other. They don’t even connect through anger or hatred. They each have too much else on their minds that keeps them from truly caring about what the other is thinking and feeling, although Phillips has to pretend that he does in the hope Muse will respond in kind and so will be less inclined to harm Phillips’ crew and the pretending is easy for him because he’s naturally a compassionate man. Muse understands Phillips a little bit better because he understands what it is to be an American better than Phillips does and a lot better than Phillips understands what it is not to be one.
“There has to be more than fishing and kidnapping people,” Phillips insists, thinking he’s making a reasonable point.
“Maybe in America,” Muse replies with the movie’s most heartbreaking line. “Maybe in America.”
But basically they remain mysteries to each other.
Their inability to understand each other and form any sort of emotional bond, though, doesn’t mean there’s no connection between them.
One of my favorite moments comes when after the first attempt to take the Maersk Alabama fails because Muse’s rival gets scared off and Muse’s skiff’s engine stalls, he and Phillips lock gazes through their binoculars and both feel the shock of recognition.
They know each other on a fundamental level as fellow captains. Each recognizes the other as intelligent and competent and therefore formidable. But the real point of sympathy between them is their aloneness, how being in command isolates them.
Greengrass uses his camera to insist upon this. Abdi and Hanks rarely appear in close-ups with other members of the cast or with each other. When they are shown with people around them, it tends to be in long shots that emphasize the spaces between them and those people.
This aloneness is stressful, even frightening for Phillips but it’s a defining fact of his job and he’s learned to deal with it and can deal with it because he knows that when he needs help, it will come.
Part of what’s devastating about the utterly devastating final scenes of the film is Phillips’ realization that that help is not going to come in time.
But for Muse, aloneness is the defining fact of his life.
Whenever the camera isolates him, it shows him thinking. Abdi is excellent at conveying the intensity of Muse’s thinking and how it’s going on on several levels at once. And whatever else he’s thinking, there is always one level on which he’s thinking, How did I wind up in this mess? This mess being not this misadventure but his whole life. I’m too smart for this. I’m too ambitious for this. I’m too good for this. And we recognize that that’s not vanity. It’s honesty. He is smart and ambitious and too good to be a pirate. He is in spirit what he wishes he was in fact, a born American.
He’s exactly the kind of person we want to come here. Which makes for the wrenching irony of his ultimate fate.
It’s wonderful, then, the way Abdi and Hanks are able to interact given the inwardness of both their performances.
As Phillips, Hanks is quiet, self-contained, reined in but not repressed, laconic but not taciturn, dour, or sullen, not humorless or unfeeling but practical above all else, a definite There’s a time and a place sort. Muse, to the extent he understands Phillips, understands him as a typical American. We understand him as a typical New Englander.
I loved it when the British Naval Officer Phillips has contacted by radio to report that he think pirates are after his ship assures him, “Chances are they’re just fisherman” and Hanks submerges all his anger and fear in a sharply but still calmly delivered understatement, “They’re not here to fish.”
That’s a Yankee sea captain talking.
Captain Phillips is thrilling and suspenseful but it’s interesting how after the boarding of the ship and the taking of the bridge, which concludes the first act, there’s almost no more action.
In the second act, suspense builds as we watch and wait for Phillips to figure out how to get the pirates off his ship or for Muse to come to his senses.
In the third act, suspense turns to dread as we hope against hope that things work themselves out before the object of our dread arrives.
That object is, as I’ve been insisting all along, the Seals.
Which is to say, again, Death and the inevitable end of the tragedy.
Speaking of actors taking the screen away from Tom Hanks: He was very good as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, but Emma Thompson was even better as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers. My review: Saving P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and the saving grace of stories.
More on Barkhad Abdi from NPR: How Breakthrough 'Captain Phillips' Actor Connected To The Role
Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass, screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky, and Catherine Keener. PG-13. Now on DVD and available to watch instantly at Amazon.