“Captain Phillips”, the new Tom Hanks movie about the 2009 Maersk Line attack by Somali pirates, and subsequent rescue operation of the captain, was the best security-related movie I have seen since “Breach”. Despite some people giggling throughout the movie, it was not funny, or even, “entertaining” in a conventional sense. Then again most movies are just as much about what the audience brings in as what the movie aims to portray. To me, this episode was just a small glimpse into the much larger picture of Somali piracy. I liked that the movie quite realistically portrayed the way Somalian warlords use local villagers to perform their bidding in capturing ships, kidnapping hostages, and exchanging them for hefty ransoms. Max Boot, in the July 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, provided an excellent overview of the ransom situation and a series of excellent suggestions, based in history, of eliminating that security situation altogether. But the focus of the movie was not the battle of strategies or a survey of all pirate attacks. It focused on an individual, faced with the challenging of saving the ship from a group of attackers. There are rumors that the historical Captain Phillips was not the courageous, quick-thinking he is portrayed to be. I was not surprised that the situation was somewhat exaggerated for dramatic effect. None of it took away from the merit and point of the movie. Regardless of the historical Phillips’s initial recklessness, or at least, the team’s interpretation of his actions, much remains to be said for the attempt to outwit the pirates.
The acting in the movie was top notch. Tom Hanks is as superb as I have ever seen him. He begins as a shaky, unsure regular Joe type, who is trying to fake it through a traumatic, highly unusual (for him) situation. However, he becomes increasingly confident, deliberate, and as the movie progresses, cunning. The pirates, excellently played by a team of newcomers, were quite realistic and rather frightening. I liked that the director did not attempt to make them all “redeemable”. Some film critics disagree, and argue that the director was trying to send a “we are all humans” message, and to contrast the overwhelming might of US ships and Navy against the pathetic figures of the pirates ambushing the ship, and later crouching down in their skif. But to me, the essence of the pirates (and the director’s view of them) was encapsulated in Captain Phillips’ outcry: “You’re NOT just a fisherman!” On the one hand, the film acknowledges the sad reality that Somalia is a failed state with no infrastructure, and with villagers completely in the power of the local war-lords. On the other hand, individuals still have a choice, as we see in the differences between the pirates. One is just a kid, who did not realize what he was getting into and came to regret his decision. He was the one who ended up showing some compassion to Phillips, but ended up dead having made his choice to stick with the pirates. The leader of the gang was conniving and ambitious, and although he claimed he had no choice and had to proceed with the hostage-taking or face sure death in the hands of the warlord, at no point in time when he had a choice to retreat before it became “too late” did he exercise it. As for the other two pirates, they were drug addicts and completely savage. But not insane. They knew exactly what was going on and what would happen once the US Navy arrived.
The conversation between Phillips and Muse/Skinny (the leader of the gang of pirates) shows more resignation than true hopelessness on the pirate of the pirates. Phillips says that there’s gotta be something better than kidnapping people. Muse says that in America, there is but not in Somalia. At no point during Phillips’s time as a hostage does Skinny ever show regret or remorse over doing what he does… only a glimpse of regret over having to relinquish the real earnings to the warlords. He does not show any concern for his family left behind, for the wounded kid who came to pirate with them, for his hostage (only in so much as he needs him alive for ransom), or for his community. There is not even a thought in his mind of expressing the wish to go someplace better (other than his sarcastic comments about coming to the U.S) or finding help in trying to create the opportunities that are now non-existent… or even just getting away from the war lords. As for his companions, they are acting no better than the war lords who sent them, and become increasingly abusive towards their hostage for no reason at all. There is no discussion of Al Shabab, Islam, or Al Qaeda in the movie, other than Skinny claiming that they are not Al Qaeda and just want money for ransom. On the one hand, this lack of discussion of other issues that plague Somalia help focus on the personal situation of Phillips and his interactions with the pirate. On the other, without understanding the interconnections between war lords, who profit from piracy, Al Shabab that is so prevalent in Somalia, and its links to Al Qaeda one cannot fully comprehend the situation, and thus, to an average viewer unfamiliar with the backdrop, against which the movie is taking place, the stand-off MAY indeed become another generic action sequence, albeit more exotic and gritty than your average shoot-em-up urban gorefest.
For the more discerning viewers, this movie is an opportunity to start thinking about the much more complex reality of piracy, terrorist groups, and failed states that lie behind it. While certainly not a full exploration of the issue, it could certainly serve as a beginning of a disconcerting exploration. For everyone else, it might be one of the first films in recent years where the evildoers are presented without sentimentality, or an attempt to make their motivations appear more complex than they really are, and for that, at least, I am grateful. Is this a start of a much more down to earth approach to real issues in Hollywood Lalaland? I am not holding my breath, but I will hope that at the very least, the future movies will emulate this movie, rather than some recent propagandistic disasters such as Zero Dark Thirty. Also, kudos on bringing Somalia to the radars…. it gets much space in newspapers, but not too much attention from the general public being so far away and largely irrelevant to the average citizen’s life. I hope to be exploring the approach to the security issue from Somalia soon.