The humble shipping container is arguably the most important invention of the 20th Century. Without it the world would be far less connected and international trade would be slower and less valuable than it is today. The container is therefore a facilitator for globalisation and a modern success story. However, while globalisation can be good — in widening trade, breaking cultural barriers, and making the world connected — it is not without its externalities. And the conflict in Paul Greengrass‘s Captain Phillips (2013, 134 mins) sees both sides of the globalisation argument come face to face where else but on a container ship.
The Maersk Alabama, an American-flagged feeder vessel routinely sailing between Oman and Kenya, made the news in 2009 when it was hijacked off the Somalian coast. While it’s well known that piracy is rife in the region this particular hijacking was notable for the size of the ship targeted. Her captain at the time was Richard Phillips and it’s his account of the incident, as told in his 2010 book A Captain’s Duty, that sees Tom Hanks step into his shoes.
Despite its maritime setting, the film sets two stories in motion. The first is the eponymous captain’s as he gets his briefing and packs his bags for the trip ahead. En route to the airport he references the current global downturn noting to his wife (Catherine Keener) that, back in his day you could walk into a job and work your way up the ladder. Not so now, with myriad applicants chasing every job, and, on the other side of the world, we see this first hand, as Somalian gang leaders demand a ship be captured. Those willing outweigh the eventual pirates.
When both parties finally meet we get a drawn out stalemate between crew and pirates, although the latter always have something of an upper hand…and guns. Chief among them is Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a skinny wretch who, perhaps because of his scrawniness, has something more to prove and therefore doesn’t need to think twice about violence to make himself understood. The performance is both engrossing and extremely intense; a real achievement for a first time actor. The much trailered moment when he commands Captain Phillips to “look at me” a perfect encapsulation of the portrayal overall. Also debuts, the remaining pirates (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali) show themselves as more than capable too, both in capturing the ship and in the infighting that follows.
Hanks, as Captain Phillips, is superb in so much that it’s easy to forget that the man on screen is a character being acted. His performance feels natural, embodying as he does a man who is calm under pressure at all times. How heroic one takes him in the context of a true story is a personal choice — while the movie is based on Phillips’s account, it’s something that others involved have questioned — it works within the film because it needs to be a single hero facing off against the pirates rather than a concerted crew effort. The latter is simply not Hollywood. While support does come via the US Navy, the focus is all on the captain. Come the final few minutes, Hanks dials up his acting a further few notches, all that stoicism converted into something deeply raw, emotional, and affecting.
What really brings the movie together is the style in which it is delivered. Greengrass’s camera is restless, swinging this way and that as it hunts the action. It’s like being inside a documentary as it happens, such is its immediacy. Thankfully, away from the claustrophobic closeness to the action, he also gives us moments of air in which we can see the larger picture, of ships at sea. But even here, with a container ship’s relatively slow manoeuvring speed, we get a sense of high octane action. Days become nights and become days again, hinting at a longer duration for the story, but with no mention of days passing, time becomes compressed to ensure we remain on the edge of our seats.
Despite the veracity of his account, Captain Richard Phillips will certainly heed the old captain’s duty that he will go down with his ship. In history, at least. But it’s not who did what that should lead the debate around Captain Phillips. Instead the effects of globalisation as discussed in the movie are where the real debate should lie. Is the west, in all its capitalist glory, responsible for the poverty elsewhere that drives people to become criminals against their nature? If so, what can be done about it? While there’s no answers, the questions are posed. All a movie like this can do is educate others on how the comfortable western lifestyle as typified by Captain Phillips is not without its victims who will bite back.