Captain Phillips: Piracy, Courage, and Studies in Leadership

Captain Phillips, Directed by Paul Greengrass

Paul Greengrass previously directed The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), the latter two installments in the Matt Damon spy thriller trilogy.  The Bourne movies enjoy an implausibly high critical and popular reception—the last of them won 3 Oscars, has a spot in IMDB’s list of the best movies of all time, and has a 94 percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com.  To me, having read the books by Robert Ludlum of the same name, the movies seemed like run-of-the-mill action films with especially bad cinematography.

What others liked about Bourne—the documentary-style realism, the attention to human details in the midst of carnage—finds much better material in Greengrass’ superb new movie, Captain Phillips.   Phillips is a better vehicle for Greengrass because it is a true story.  In Bourne Greengrass’ approach was a distracting, showy, sort of pretentious realism (way too much shaky-cam); in Phillips, the same techniques enhance the story.

Captain Phillips is the true story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa in 2009.  In case you don’t remember how that incident ended, I won’t give away the ending of the movie.  Suffice to say, the film is a harrowing, intense, nail-biter.  It is equal parts a heist movie, procedural, and war movie—a sort of cross between Heat, Apollo 13, and Zero Dark Thirty, on a small scale.

At the center of the story is the titular Richard Phillips, whose memoir is the basis for the movie.  (Which is not really a spoiler since the introductory credits tell us as much).  Phillips is played by Tom Hanks, one of the best actors working today not named Daniel Day-Lewis.  Hanks gives a strong performances as a man who starts the movie as a reserved, no-nonsense businessman, shows depths of selflessness and quick thinking as his ship is attacked by pirates, and is forced to confront his own powerlessness by the end.  Hanks’ final scenes are wrenching.

Phillips faces off against the pirate captain, Abduwali Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi.  This movie is the only entry in Abdi’s IMDB entry; if this really is Abdi’s first acting job, it is a miracle.  Abdi carries half the film convincingly.  Muse is not the biggest pirate, nor the loudest, but he is the most self-assured.  In an early scene he faces off against a fellow Somali, one larger and more well-armed than he.  The way he calmly and swiftly demonstrates his dominance establishes both the character’s courage and his cruelty.

In the rivalry between Phillips and Muse the film gives us two pictures of leadership, notable for their similarities as much as for their differences.  Both men are driven by bosses; both are simple businessmen.  (Muse repeatedly assures his American hostages “no al-Qaida here.  Just business.”)  Both have a job to do and a crew to manage.  Insofar as Muse shows grit, determination, and ingenuity in his job, the audience begins to sympathize with him.  But the similarities end there, as does our liking for Muse.

Phillips takes responsibility even when the situation is out of his control: he takes initiative and even improvises creative strategems.  Muse is passive and fatalistic:  late in the movie Phillips pleads with Muse to let him go, but Muse simply responds “I’ve gone too far. I can’t go back now.”  Muse refuses to take responsibility for where is choices have led.

Phillips is selfless, telling the pirates to kill him instead of his crew and volunteering to be taken as a hostage in exchange for his ship.  Muse is not; when he is briefly taken captive, he demands his fellow pirates do whatever they have to to free him.  Phillips cares for his crew and even shows compassion for the pirates; Muse is ruthless towards one and callous towards the other.  In the end, Phillips is a servant leader; Muse is an autocrat.

The movie thus gives us two pictures of command, highlighting the roles that choice, selflessness, and initiative play in shaping a leader.  It is similar to Slumdog Millionaire, a movie that showed two brothers who came from the same slum but ended in diametrically opposite places because of the choices they made.  Phillips and Muse didn’t start from the same place, but they worked a similar job, made different choices, and ended with different fates.

Captain Phillips is a story about reaping and sowing.  The choices we make matter: the actions we take cultivate our characters and ultimately define who we are.  “The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the upright will flourish,” (Proverbs 14:11).  The contrasting character studies aren’t the main focus of the movie—more time and attention is spent on ratcheting up the tension and showing the precise moves each side makes in the fateful march towards resolution—but it is there, and it helps make Captain Phillips one of the best movies of the year.


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