Paul Greengrass’s brilliance for capturing the nervous system of an action thriller and making it throb with intensity is famous (Green Zone and the last two Bourne films for example), so I will forgo commenting on the visually stunning, adrenaline-pumping unfolding of Captain Phillips.
Instead, I’m interested in the underside of the film, the sub-currents flowing through the ocean of this movie about international business, Somali piracy, and the clash of real people (and power) in desperate situations. These sub-currents function almost like subliminal pirates that (intentionally or unintentionally) creep up on the film’s moral radar and “hold hostage” some of its climactic triumphalism, showing that this oceanic body of heroism is not so clear.
As Phillips (Tom Hanks) drives to the airport with his wife, he opines how “it seems like the world is moving too fast” and “our kids are going into a different kind of world than we came into” – a world of “competition.” Phillips declares, “They gotta be strong to survive out there!”
Well, soon enough we see a very different world not moving so fast but no less ruled by competition – competition to provide for your family, to keep food on the table (if you have one), to stay alive. We see a Somali boss recruiting “pirates” from a crowd of skinny young men seeking work for the day. Although the film itself doesn’t really explore this question, it does seem to provoke it: are these Somali “pirates” mainly doing what “Captain” Phillips hoped his kids would do: “be strong” and “survive out there”?
After all, as Muse, the pirates’ leader, says to Phillips after capturing his tanker, “No Al Qaida, just business!” For these desperate young men, this is just another kind of competition, another kind of ‘fishing job.’ Hanks-as-Phillips expresses moralistic disbelief back to his captors: “Is this how you do business?” But then we learn about how the transnational shipping business in the Indian Ocean had seriously harmed the waters and thus the livelihood of Somali fisherman like Muse, who snaps back: “You come to our waters, you have to pay! … What’s left for us to fish?”
Thus, when Muse says, “I’m the captain now!” one might wonder, “But who was ‘Captain’ Phillips’s captain to begin with? Was it a greedy, competition-driven ‘captain,’ at least partially responsible for creating this survivalistic, competition-driven ‘captain’ named Muse?” Is Phillips an unadulterated man-turned-hero, or is he a guy caught up in a much more ambiguous global system of competing ‘captains’?
So, Phillip’s question to Muse seems to be asked back to Phillips-cum-us: “Is this how we do business?” – business that’s as “fast and cheap” as possible and also carries “aid” for poor Africans (almost like an aspirin for a mild conscience-ache) but spoils working people’s lives in the process and crushes them when they (equally illicitly) fight back on the same principles: competition, survival, “being strong”? Later on, when Phillips intones to Muse, “There’s got to be something more than being fishermen and kidnapping people,” Muse is deadpan: “Maybe in America, Irish” – a place where Muse himself wants to go to “buy a car” and flee the desperation at home. There’s obviously something perversely complex going on here.
But this much is clear: the waters in Captain Phillips are deep and dark, and the real waters the film temporarily bobs across are even more so. In the end, who’s the real ‘captain’– Phillips? Muse? a global (im)moral order that doesn’t make a personal appearance? all of the above? Unlike the film’s overly confident ending, we shouldn’t be so sure.