Two men are seen leaving home to go to work. One leaves his upper middle class, American setting, kisses his wife, and flies off in an airplane for a Middle Eastern location where he will pilot a large cargo ship. The other is forced to leave his Somalian hut and dirt floor bed to find a boat and target a cargo ship for piracy. Even if you never saw the 2009 news footage about Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks, here), you can see where this is headed.
Paul Greengrass may be better known for the second and third installments of the Bourne trilogy, but he’s done some work with non-fiction subjects that fly below the radar, in United 93 and Green Zone. Here, he has nothing but the best to work with in the capable skills of Hanks, who plays the kidnapped sea captain Phillips as a realistic, compassionate, courageous human being, in the midst of great danger and pain.
But Greengrass also has Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the Somalian pirate who leaves him to take a ship captive and safely ransom it, and finds himself facing the fury of the U.S. Navy and Navy Seals. [Abdi, an unknown Minnesotan before the filming of Captain Phillips, and several of his friends went to an open call, and ended up playing pirates from their native Somalia.] Greengrass paints Muse sympathetically, not as a person without responsibility or “fault,” but as a pawn played by his situation into actions outside of his own moral code.
Phillips is the hero here, as a captain who tries to keep his crew safe, to “take one for the team.” But he’s not just an advocate for his “own” people: he tries over and over again to intercede with Muse and Muse’s three henchmen, to get them to walk away. He seems especially concerned for the youngest of the three, a teenager, who he knows is injured, and who is just trying to survive in the bloody world of piracy.
Kudos to Greengrass and Hanks for seeing both sides of the situation.
Unfortunately, a segment of the audience I saw the film with could not. Many applauded and cheered when the bloody end of this standoff happened onscreen, as the U.S. Navy handled a situation that Phillips tells the pirates that “they can’t let you win.” We saw good art and yet not everyone could see it, just as many have missed the point of the immense pain of vengeance that we’re left with at the end of Zero Dark Thirty. Honestly, if you can miss the point of these two movies, it’s a sad day for art… and humanity!
Like the two men going to work, I’m reminded of Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Two men went to the temple to pray: the pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t like the tax collector but was “good,” while the tax collector threw himself on God’s mercy and begged for forgiveness. In Greengrass’ film, Phillips recognizes that he is blessed not to see piracy as his only option, that rather than belittling Muse and the others for who they are and what they do, he recognizes the tragedy of the situation.
In the end, Phillips understands much better what was lost that day than the people in the theater did. He sees that lives were lost, that a price was paid, and that the unfair economics of the world we live in cause many more injustices than we tend to see.
Did he want to be free? Yes. Did he fight back? Yes. But at the end of the story, Phillips knows that everything is not okay (the reverse of what Muse says throughout the film), even if he lived to tell about it.