Paul Greengrass has constructed an exciting thriller out of real-life events, which isn’t always easy. Though I’d be lying if I said that Captain Phillips maintains its tension for its entire run time, it joins Ben Affleck’s Argo in keeping me glued to the story even though I knew how it was going to end.
I love the realism of the film too. It’s not surprising that Tom Hanks keeps Phillips from becoming an action hero, but I didn’t expect the level of humanity he brought to the character. I’m thinking about one scene in particular that I don’t want to spoil (the last one in which Hanks appears onscreen), but it goes beyond simply playing the part the way I expect people to act in these situations. Phillips does things I didn’t anticipate, but when I saw them I thought, “Well, of course.”
That said, the movie doesn’t let me get to know any of its characters super well. It reveals enough to make me care about what’s happening to them, but I don’t really know what makes any of them tick. The opening scene is a conversation between Phillips and his wife that I imagine is supposed to reveal the stakes for Phillips, but it’s the weakest part of the film and doesn’t actually disclose anything more than it would to just show a picture of his family on his desk.
The most remarkable thing about Captain Phillips though is that it gives the Somali pirates as much attention as it does Phillips and his crew. That means that I didn’t get a lot of detail about their lives before these events, but I got enough to make me care. The pirates aren’t a cookie-cutter band of cutthroats; they each have individual personalities and – I presume – reasons for doing what they’re doing. I would have loved to have seen some of those reasons on the screen, but it’s notable that the film makes real characters out of them at all, going so far as to draw specific parallels between them and their victims.
That comes out in a couple of amazing scenes between Phillips and the leader of the pirates, a man named Muse. In the first, Muse is bragging about a Greek ship he took the previous year that was worth six million dollars. “Six million dollars?” Phillips asks him. “So what are you doing here?” The expression on Muse’s face says everything. That’s not his money.
The second scene is later on when everything has started to go wrong for the pirates. Muse is bemoaning that the result was supposed to be much different and Phillips asks why he kept at it even when they had an easy way out earlier. “I got bosses,” says Muse. “They got rules.” Phillips’ reply is kind of heartbreaking: “We all got bosses.”
What’s heartbreaking about it is the realization that this life and death struggle between all of these men is actually about someone else’s profit. The Somali warlords and the shipping company that employs Phillips are the ones who have created this situation, but its Muse and Phillips and their men who have to play it out.
I said earlier that it’s kind of remarkable to pay this much attention to the pirates, but it’s not so unusual for a Paul Greengrass film. I’m reminded of Green Zone, a movie that I didn’t enjoy as much as Captain Phillips, but was also able to make me think in a new way about people in a different part of the world. As Matt Damon searches for WMDs in Iraq, most of the focus is on the stakes for the United States and its allies. But there’s a moment late in the film where Damon’s Iraqi ally Freddy talks about his reasons for helping with the mission. Damon thinks it’s because he’s paying Freddy, but that makes Freddy upset. He makes it clear that he’s doing it not for the US and he's not doing it for pay, but because he cares about his country. His people have no water, he says. They have no electricity. “Whatever you want here,” he says, “I want more than you want. I want to help my country.”
I love that. Whatever Damon thinks is at stake, it’s nothing compared to the people who still have to live in Iraq once the US has left. Even though I knew that intellectually, that scene hit me in a powerful way and made me remember that when nations get involved in each other’s business, there’s much more at stake than politics.
In its own way, Captain Phillips reminds me of that too.