Americans suffer from a remarkable collective amnesia when it comes to international events. If the public is only vaguely aware that we’re still at war in Afghanistan, how are we supposed to remember that four whole years ago Somali pirates attacked an American ship and kidnapped an American captain? Fortunately, director Paul Greengrass remembers how to jog our cultural memory: cast Tom Hanks, give him a quaint regional accent and throw him in the thick of pivotal world events.
In April of 2009, armed pirates boarded the container ship Maersk Alabama off the Somali coast and kidnapped Captain Richard Phillips. They escaped with their hostage in a lifeboat, initiating a five-day standoff with the U.S. Navy. Most Americans would struggle to repeat even these basic details, though even this is a cursory summary that belies both the intensity of the ordeal itself and the wider picture of the complicated global context. With “Captain Phillips,” Greengrass delivers a film personal enough to move the audience, yet broad enough to raise even our mercurial international consciousness.
The title of the film is misleading: “Captain Phillips” is the story of not one, but two men from different worlds. The titular Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) begins the film with one of the world’s longest commutes, from Burlington, Vt. to Djibouti to take command of the Maersk on its route to Mombasa. At the same time, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is selected to begin his own commute: a long voyage by skiff hundreds of miles into the ocean that would put him on a collision course with the Maersk, Phillips, and headlines the world over. Despite the enormous geopolitical consequences of their meeting, however, the film never loses its focus on the men themselves.
The events that the film recounts leave room for ingenuity and tenacity on both sides; there was never any expectation that “Captain Phillips” would lack in narrative intensity. Yet, it is the grippingly personal nature of the film that makes it thrilling. Nods must be given to both Hanks and Abdi for incredible, no, spectacular performances. Of course we must expect this of an experienced Americana fixture like Hanks, but the extent to which his portrayal pulls the viewer into Phillips’s ordeal is truly remarkable. Every nuanced emotional conflict is present. When Hanks must play the role of the calm captain issuing orders under extreme duress, you can hear both the automatic authority and calmness in his voice. But in Hanks’ expression and almost imperceptible quavers, the inward tension and fear is more than palpable. Yet no great performance occurs in a vacuum, and Hanks could not have a more able opposite than Abdi. The Somali cannot even be said to have portrayed his character; he exuded it and is every bit the tenacious antagonist, beautifully replicating the calmness and resolve born of desperation and necessity. Greengrass also gets some credit here for the underhanded directorial tactics. Before their first encounter in front of the cameras, Hanks and Abdi had never seen or met each other. As a virtual unknown, recruited from the substantial Somali expatriate community in Minnesota, Abdi was a stranger to the American icon until Hanks literally ended up on the wrong end of Abdi’s AK-47. Of course, one can’t be sure, but it’s nice to believe that some of the pressure of the scene of their meeting comes from the fact that Hanks is looking down the gun barrel of a sinister stranger.
The interaction between the newfound friends is not limited to violence and threats. Phillips and Muse manage to build a compelling relationship as the film unfolds, gleaning poignant personal insight even through their constant cerebral game of cat and mouse. In what is perhaps the film’s most transcendent exchange, Phillips asks, “There’s gotta be something other than kidnapping people,” to which Muse answers, “Maybe in America. Maybe in America.”
That small scrap of dialogue is one of the central unifiers of the entire story. It speaks volumes about both characters, namely that Phillips is the stereotypical American “everyman” with severe illusions about the rest of the world and that Muse is just doing what he must to survive. Yet the reference to a much broader global economic context is unmistakable and brings home the reality that Somali piracy is not a simple problem that can be dealt with by a show of American force.
“Captain Phillips” is a truly all-encompassing film. It would have been easy to stop at an entertaining recounting of the events of April 2009, but instead Greengrass draws us into a deeply personal narrative that manages to touch upon far-reaching geopolitical issues via universal emotional language. Hopefully, “Captain Phillips” can bring us as Americans a little closer to grasping the immense complexity of our strained relationship with the rest of the international community.