"Movies are not journalism. They’re not history. But I really do believe that movies can tell truths. They can tell you what it was like to be there. Or something of what it was like to be there. Something of what the experience felt like. Something of the forces in play. Something of the complexities and dangers of the world."
That, director Paul Greengrass says, is the spirit in which he offers his new film — Captain Phillips, a tense depiction of the hijacking of the U.S.-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama, the kidnapping of its captain, and the operation that rescued him. Greengrass was speaking at a Washington, D.C., screening of the film last week, and the sentiment he expressed captures the themes of his remarkable movie. The events on which the film is based are by now well-known: In 2009, a band of Somali pirates hijacked the Alabama, eventually kidnapping its captain, Richard Phillips, and making off with him in one of the ship’s lifeboats. In a daring operation, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs rescued Phillips from the raft where he was being held by dispatching of his kidnappers with a series of precision sniper shots from a nearby U.S. destroyer. But in trying to capture "something of the complexities and dangers of the world," Greengrass isn’t just trying to tell the unbelievable story of how Phillips managed to survive his ordeal. He’s also trying to explain why Phillips ended up being held at gunpoint by a bunch of Somali youths in the first place.
The question is whether Greengrass succeeds at that more ambitious undertaking.
The audience meets the film’s stars — Tom Hanks as the captain and Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the pirate gang — long before they fatefully intersect on the bridge of the Alabama. Beginning in his picturesque Vermont home, the film shows Phillips as he prepares to leave for Dubai and his latest assignment. An old-school guy trying to make sense of a chaotic new world, Phillips tells his wife during the drive to the airport how he worries whether their son will be able to make it out there — whether he will be able to handle the competition for work in a globalized economy. It’s a subtle, if not quite effective, reminder that this is as much a movie about global capitalism as it is a story of survival. Once Phillips has arrived in Dubai and set sail on his massive ship, the focus shifts to the Somali seaside village of Eyl. There, Muse is pressed back into service as a pirate — informed by his warlord boss that he must return to the ocean and earn his keep. Warily, he rounds up a group of men and heads out to sea.
Quickly, Greengrass manages to shield Captain Phillips from the criticism that it is simply a movie about the noble white man and the savage black pirate, fighting it out to the death on the high seas. Phillips is a lonely clerk in the global economy, moving big metal boxes from one point to another as he sits in his cabin sending emails to his wife a world away — all while listening to Eric Clapton’s "Wonderful Tonight." Muse is a reluctant fighter, not fueled by bloodlust but by his overbearing, menacing commander.
It’s through Abdi in his role as Muse that Greengrass tries to elevate the movie (a rookie actor, Abdi was driving a cab in Minneapolis before wandering into an open casting call and landing the role). The bulk of the film plays out in the claustrophobic confines of the lifeboat in which Muse and his men attempt to escape back to Somalia with their hostage (once there they hope to barter him for a fat ransom). Stuck together on the tiny vessel, Muse and Phillips develop something of an odd-couple relationship — one that paints a mildly humanizing portrait of a Somali pirate. And when the U.S. Navy arrives on the scene, Muse becomes a figure of tragedy. With the mighty USS Bainbridge at his back and miles of sea ahead of him until he reaches Somalia, he has no good options. "I have come too far," a melancholy Muse tells Phillips aboard the lifeboat.
So why is it, exactly, that Muse has come this far? The film gestures at a few answers, but that’s where it runs into trouble. Muse briefly mentions that Somalia’s once-lucrative fishing grounds have been depleted, leaving him without options. So is this in fact a film about the plight of Somali fishermen? Perhaps — if the nod toward the depletion of the country’s fish stocks didn’t feel like a throwaway line. The omnipresence of khat, a leafy stimulant, in the movie doesn’t make the rendering of Muse and his crew any more empathetic. The pirates are constantly chewing the drug and bickering over their supply; at times they come across as junkies who are only kidnapping the captain in order to get the cash necessary to land their next khat score. But while Greengrass could have done more to flesh out the inner lives of his Somali pirates — and forgive me for thinking that a big-budget Hollywood film could ever do such a thing — the director does inject a subversive undercurrent into the film thanks to some deft writing. "There’s gotta be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people," Phillips tells his captor. "Maybe in America," Muse shoots back.
And that’s the essence of this film: At the end of the day, this is a movie about America and its wars. Though U.S. anti-piracy efforts off the Somali coast are not formally a part of the war on terror, the U.S. fight against al Qaeda still hovers in the background. "Captain, relax, nobody gets hurt. No al Qaeda here. Just business," Muse tells Phillips. And the Navy SEALs who come to Phillips’s rescue have of course become an icon of that fight (killing Osama bin Laden will do that). When these "special operators" — a loaded term if there ever was one — arrive on the scene about two-thirds of the way through the film, they immediately take control. With their appearance, the movie shifts from the tense relationship between Phillips and Muse to the kind of footage for which Greengrass is known — close-up, hand-held, and extremely shaky shots of fast-paced action scenes. And that’s really a shame. As soon as the film transitions into thriller mode, Greengrass’s lofty ambitions of teasing out the "complexities and dangers of the world" go out the window. Instead, the film finishes as yet another homage to the frightening, awesome killing abilities of America’s special forces.
For that reason, the film’s release on Friday comes with a delicious irony. Just last weekend, a group of Navy SEALs carried out a snatch-and-grab operation in Somalia that failed miserably, as the SEALs retreated without their target. But Captain Phillips ultimately buys into the myth of America’s all-powerful special forces. The subtext in the film is that these men can solve most, if not all, problems: Just hand them guns and set them loose — they’re good shots, so what could go wrong? It’s a sentiment that’s echoed in Zero Dark Thirty, which depicted the bin Laden raid and implied that most problems in U.S. foreign policy can be solved by suspending the rules and putting a few good men (and maybe one woman) on the case.
At the screening of Captain Phillips in Washington last week, I asked the real Captain Phillips, who was in attendance, what he thought of the bond between the fictional Phillips and his captor. "There was no empathy there. There was no Stockholm syndrome, no concern, no empathy, no sympathy," he told Foreign Policy. "We were on different teams." When I spoke to Phillips he had just gone through the bizarre experience of seeing his own life-or-death struggle immortalized in a Tom Hanks performance. That performance is gritty, intense, and difficult to forget, but apparently far from the actual truth. "It was a lot worse than what the movie showed, so it wasn’t really too hard to watch," Phillips said.
Therein lies the problem. The actual truth — of Phillips’s experience, of conditions in Somalia, of the ability of U.S. special forces — is cast aside in the film. To use Greengrass’s formulation, Captain Phillips conveys "something of what it was like to be there."
For Hollywood, that’s probably good enough.