Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
I really didn’t want to see Captain Phillips. The Academy Award nomination made me go. Despite the award nominations for both the film and the individual performances, I feared that this film, inspired by the 2009 hijacking of the cargo ship S.S. Maersk Alabama would degenerate into a jingoistic recruitment film for the United States Navy. In the end, I think Hanks’ performance combined with a narrative that places the individuals involved within larger structures of geopolitics allows the film to avoid my worst fears and instead to highlight the dehumanizing role of institutions in geopolitics.
So, here’s the way the real-life narrative played out in the western media. Somali pirates hijacked a U.S. flagged cargo ship delivering primarily food aid to Kenya on behalf of African relief efforts. The pirates took the captain hostage. The president refused to negotiate and instead ordered the Navy Seals to mount a rescue operation. The Seals succeeded in their efforts, rescuing the captain while killing the pirates. Chalk one up for the good guys. I mean, they are pirates, right?
Of course, as one devoted to scholarship, I am put off but such simplistic narratives. Nothing as complex as international politics is ever that simple. Since the national narrative simplified the event to an absurdist level, surely the film version would be worse… or possibly better. Maybe the movie brought in the political complexities that led to piracy in the first place. Maybe it even humanized the pirates. Maybe. But I wasn’t eager to risk it. I couldn’t sit through two and a half hours of demonizing some of the poorest people on the planet for the sake of entertainment. It’s bad enough we do that in politics.
So I went to see it anyway. Truth is, it would have embodied my worst fears, but Tom Hanks saved it with a brilliant performance that seemed to capture the ambivalence that ethics demands. Hanks portrays Phillips as a man working a dangerous job with a good deal of trepidation. He is neither excessively heroic nor patriotic and from the opening scene the audience is led to believe he’d rather not be doing what he’s doing. It is clear, from his discussion about the nature of his job’s demands to his overly rigorous enforcement of institutional rules (safety checks, break times), that he is a man immersed in a system the functioning of which he relies on to survive. It is never portrayed as the right way to do things, it is simply the way things are done.
In some ways, Barkhad Abdi, in what is amazingly his first ever screen role, portrays the role of lead hijacker Abduwali Muse as also caught up in a system that he relies on to survive, but his motivations are a little more uneven. While attempts are made to show that Muse does what he does because life in Somalia requires it (more on that in a moment), there are other moments where we are led to believe that his own desire for recognition, or his own interest in appearing masculine and fearless lead him to aggressively pursue the hijacking. But perhaps this is the point. Muse and Somalia are not the institutionalized country that the western world is. There is still room for decision making, even bad decision making. As a country not fully integrated into the global system, Somalia and its citizens lack the security of rigidly defined rules that serve to guide both Phillips and the Seals who come rescue him.
On the flip side, the Navy Seals who eventually resolve the situation are not portrayed as particularly heroic or human either. In fact, there is no humanizing element to the Seals at all. They are all about the mission. In this way the Seals are portrayed as they are: highly trained killers who shoot whomever the president tells them to shoot. In other words, they are specialized cogs in the vast geopolitical machine that led to this moment. From the time the Captain Castellano of the U.S. naval warship Bainbridge is informed about the coming Seals, we know that if the Seals are involved, the hijackers will die. And we share Captain Castellano’s desire to avoid that. All of the shots of the Seals reinforce the idea that the coming of the Seals is the coming of death. They are a well-oiled machine (literally as there are some very 300 like shots of them preparing) within the larger machine.
The film’s insistence on the structural play between Phillips, his hijackers, and the U.S. Navy, is both its saving grace and its downfall. While it never quite demonizes the Somali hijackers it never quite humanizes them either. In the entire film there is one line devoted to why the Somalis would engage in piracy in the first place. Muse explains to Phillips that Somalis collect “tolls” on shipping because industrial fishing techniques have robbed the waters of fish and left Somali fisherman with no way to earn a living. Even this is undermined however, as Phillips says to Muse late in the film after having been beaten for an escape attempt, “You’re no fisherman.” In the end, the best we get as to why Muse is a pirate is because in Somalia there is no other choice, but really this means that there is no institution other than the warlords who demand pirate treasure. It is the only institution that enables life.
Hanks’ performance is ultimately of a man learning to see the failure and necessity of the institutions and systems which shape our lives, even if he is helpless in their face and can do nothing but say thank you to the system that both imprisons and rescues him. I say that the film never quite humanizes the pirates, but through Hanks we come to want a better outcome than their death. It’s not so much that “They’re people” but rather that the world is broken. Hanks knows that barring their surrender, the hijackers will be killed, the system demands it. He even aids in their killing by giving information to the Seals. Still he begs the 16 year old hijacker to just put his hands up.
When the three pirates still holding him are simultaneously shot and killed, their combined blood splattering on Phillips, Hanks’ performance reveals the depth of emotional complexity that global politics demands. When he begins weeping, it is not clear if it’s sadness or joy and seems to vacillate between the two. The institution has brought about its desired result, and like Hanks we are glad the ordeal is over, but left empty by the waste of human life. Was anything accomplished other than the death of three people? When he trembles to explain to the medic that not all of the blood on him is his, he manages to convey the horror that it must be to be splattered with even your kidnappers’ blood. Hanks made me want to weep for the world which made these events possible. What other response could there be?