In 2009 when the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates most of the world was introduced to a new kind of pirate. These weren’t the romantic visions that Disney and Johnny Depp have so colorfully crafted, but real, desperate human beings playing out a losing battle as the world watched.
So it seems only appropriate that the film “Captain Phillips” would be just as much about his four captors as it was about the courageous captain.
The pirates—Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Najee (Faysal Ahmed), and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali)—are at once threatening and tragic. Their authenticity comes from a place of inexperience (all four are Somali-American with limited acting experience) and it is brilliant.
Even with four unexpected star turns in tow, maintaining the interest of an audience that more likely than not knows the general outcome of this story is not an easy task. Given the number of interviews Captain Richard Phillips (portrayed in the movie by the eternally genuine Tom Hanks) has given surrounding this film I find it hard to believe that any one that’s old enough to see this movie will go into it not knowing that he survives.
But this movie isn’t about survival, although the poster says otherwise. For those of us on the winning side of the tragic irony, survival is only in question for four of these people and from the moment they turn down Captain Phillips’ offer to let them leave with the contents of the safe we know that they want more than mere survival.
As the U.S. Navy and mysterious superhero like presence of the SEALs descend upon this terrifying situation the contrast in circumstances between our hero and his captors becomes more and more apparent.
The balance of the calm heroics of Captain Phillips and the grace with which he addresses his captors keeps this story afloat. To call these men brutal doesn’t seem quite accurate. Yes, they are violent (although none of the crew are killed). Still the desperateness of their circumstances and their general vulnerability far surpass any cruelty.
This vulnerability is quite literally displayed by the youngest of them, a 15-year-old with no shoes, and again in the final scenes of the film when their leader is ascertained by the U.S. Navy. The image of this solitary gaunt man being tackled by several members of the U.S. military is heartrendingly sad.
Before I finish I do have to say that Tom Hanks is absolutely perfect in this film. The humanity of his performance all comes together in the moment he realizes he’s survived and he weeps. I confess I was weeping right along with him, but even as I sat there trying to not ugly cry, I did wonder for whom I and the title character were weeping. Was it that he’d had survived? Was it what had been lost? Was it the injustice of the circumstances that led to the senseless situation?
“Captain Phillips” is an inspiring tale of heroism that is beautifully told, but it’s more than a hero story, and these “villains” are more than simple pirates, leaving the viewer an amazing movie experience, but no simple answers.