Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips, ostensibly a character study and action thriller, is really one of the best portrayals of globalization to hit the screen in a long time.

It’s 2009, some 145 miles off the coast of Somalia, on the eastern coast of Africa. A U.S. container ship, the Maersk Alabama, is on its way to Mombasa, Kenya, with 17,000 metric tons of cargo. Ironically 5,000 tons were relief supplies intended for Somalia, Kenya and Uganda. With his usual exciting precision English director, Paul Greenglass, investigates the details of the huge ship, showing it as a complicated living entity, not unlike the complex worlds of other institutions, like hotels and factories

Commanding officer, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), worried by the recent reports of piracy in the area, orders the 20-man crew to double their safety precautions. But there’s not really too much he could do if the worst-case scenario should happen. There are no firearms aboard the ship, and it is a long way away from other ships or help of any kind.

Meanwhile, a group of Somali criminals in the port city of Eyl, hyped up on a local herbal stimulant called dhat, are taking their orders from a ruthless elder. Inhabitants of one of the poorest countries in the world, the Somali people can barely survive on farming or trade. In recent years, they’ve learned that capturing the big ships of hated foreigners is the best way to make money to feed their families. The leader of a four-man crew is Muse, a rail-thin, iron-willed man portrayed by newcomer, Somali-born American actor Barhad Abdi.

Unless you see the movie, it’s hard to imagine how big the container ship is and how small by comparison is the wooden speedboat that carries the four Somali pirates. Despite Captain Phillips well-coordinated defense attempts, the Somalis, who are heavily armed and frightfully hyped up, are able to board the big ship and hold its crew captive. It’s the first time in 200 years that an American ship has been captured by pirates. You can’t help but compare this event with 9-11 in which a few crazed terrorists flew planes into American buildings.

Phillips had ordered the crew to hide in the shadows of the engine room in bowels of the ship to avoid capture. So the beginning of the film is a tense cat-and-mouse thriller as the pirates attempt to find the crew. Then it becomes a battle of wits between the two crew leaders, Captain Phillips and Muse, who see in one another, despised, but respect-worthy adversaries.

Phillips offers Muse the $35,000 in cash that is in the ship’s safe, but Muse refuses. He wants to take the captain hostage to Somalia and demand millions in ransom. Phillips is forced into an inflatable, enclosed claustrophobic lifeboat that speeds through choppy seas toward the coast. While the U.S. Navy finally speeds toward the lifeboat, Phillips must endure seemingly endless torture and fear. Only a miracle can prevent bloodshed and allow Phillips to return home to his family.

Watching the movie was certainly entertaining and the performances of Hanks and Abdi are worth the price of admission. The problem with the movie is that not enough happens to make it memorable. In fact, I had to call up the friend I had gone to the movies with a week before to remind me what movie we had seen! That is not a good sign that a movie will gain the adjective of “unforgettable” for other viewers.

In some ways, for me, the movie was more like a documentary, informing me of the world of Somali piracy and container ship trade, worlds I knew nothing about before the film. So for those reasons the film is worthwhile. (I would like to have seen more of Somalia, to learn more about what life is like there, that its men have to resort to a culture of piracy in order to stay alive.)

Although seeing this film on the big screen does indeed portray the vastness of the sea–an important element in the picture of globalization that it portrays– Captain Phillips can indeed be enjoyed on DVD on a small screen without too much diminishment.

The movie is based on the book, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, that Phillips wrote when the ordeal was over. He, and the movie, portrays him as a hero, but some members of his crew saw the events in a different light.

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