The real-life piracy thriller Captain Phillips opens with what feels at first like an inelegant bit of exposition. Preparing at home to embark on his next voyage, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) checks the itinerary on his computer for his date of departure, and his destination: Mombasa, Kenya. You may find yourself asking: Wouldn’t the captain of a major cargo ship know where he’s headed well before the day he leaves? You may even have similar thoughts a couple of scenes later, as Captain Phillips listens to one of his crew members tick off the contents of their container ship, the Maersk Alabama. Again, shouldn’t he already know all this?
But what seems early on like awkward filmmaking convention soon reveals itself as the first hint that Captain Phillips, for all its expert, armrest-tearing suspense, is about more than just a ship taken hostage by Somali pirates. “Companies want things faster and cheaper…You gotta be strong to survive out there,” Phillips says in another early scene, and it becomes clear that, for all his protestations of strength, he is a mere cog in the engine of global commerce. It doesn’t matter if he knows where he’s going, or what he’s carrying. But soon enough, he and his men, speeding through international waters off the horn of Africa, are being pursued and boarded by a ragged band of pirates led by a gaunt, intense teenager named Muse (Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, in a remarkable debut performance). “Relax, Captain. Just business,” the young pirate tells the middle-aged sailor. He’s right.
Directed by Paul Greengrass, whose penchant for handheld immediacy has over the years veered between the sublime (United 93, Bourne Ultimatum) and the ridiculous (Green Zone), Captain Phillips is all about speed – the speed of business, the speed of the chase, the speed with which the news of the Maersk’s hijacking spreads in the media, and the speed with which the U.S government and military swing into action. With Navy SEALs who jump out of airplanes and time their landings with uncanny accuracy, facial recognition software that can identify the pirates swiftly and correctly, snipers and commanders who act with automaton-like precision, the film presents a world that functions not unlike a machine: A capitalist machine, protected and enforced by a military machine, both removing the human element from the process as much as possible. Hanks gives one of the best performances of his career here, and an extended emotional outburst from him in one of the film’s final scenes is particularly effective, in part because it’s a resoundingly human moment amid all the techno-speak and cold exactitude of business and warfare. Here’s a man, breaking down, while the matter-of-fact nonchalance of predetermined professionalism continues to buzz about him.
Seen in that light, the attempts of the Somali pirates to take over the Maersk gain resonance, even a kind of troubling pathos. Somalia is a failed state that’s been pretty much abandoned by the community of nations; one of the reasons why piracy has flourished off its shores. As the pirates rush along in their decaying, puny skiffs trying to capture the giant American cargo ship, we sense a disturbing symbolism: Captain Phillips and his ship are powered through the Indian Ocean by the forces of the global economy; Muse and his men are powered by the dark side of that economy, by the desperation of those the world leaves behind. At one point, Muse even remarks that he and his companions used to be fishermen, before the big ships came and “cleaned out all the fish,” leaving them with no livelihood. “What’s left for us?” he asks.
But an American sailor nowadays is almost as rare as a Somali fisherman, and the film eventually begins to draw some surprising comparisons between Captain Phillips and Muse. After the latter claims control of the ship, the idea of which of the two men is “captain” at any given point becomes an ongoing bone of contention, a word now devalued beyond all recognition. (It also lends an added hint of irony to the film’s otherwise oddly dry title.) “Last year, I took a Greek ship. Six million dollars,” Muse brags to Phillips at one point. “Six million dollars. So what are you doing here?” Phillips asks bitterly. The same thing, of course, could be asked of him. Both men are ultimately powerless to change their destinies in a modern world that won’t wait for them.