With all due respect to Johnny Depp and Errol Flynn, piracy is a lot more complicated than Hollywood makes it look. How refreshing, therefore, that Paul Greengrass and company go out of their way to provide valuable context while also avoiding reductive racism in “Captain Phillips,” their white-knuckle retelling of the Maersk Alabama hijacking.
Frankly, after seeing the first preview for “Captain Phillips” this summer, I worried that the film might do just the opposite, though I should have trusted in Greengrass, who opened “United 93” with the controversial decision to show the Muslim terrorists going about their prayers — a choice that asks us to see the culprits as people.
“Captain Phillips” makes a similarly courageous choice by balancing the story between the Americans and the pirates, whom Greengrass introduces like desperate day laborers outside a Home Depot. These untrained volunteers are hardly the ruthless mercenaries one might expect; nor are they the simple fishermen for whom apologists make excuses, citing how international corporations have over-fished the waters off the Somali coastline. But they are proper people: fully rendered characters that Greengrass deems worthy of fair consideration and basic respect.
You wouldn’t know that from that first trailer, however, which simplistically (and rather sensationalistically) boils things down to a black-and-white conflict, literally. The ideological deck is clearly stacked in the Americans’ favor, with none other than two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks (the Jimmy Stewart of his generation) playing Richard Phillips, the real-life captain who risked his life to protect his crew. Meanwhile, the pirates are depicted as fearsomely as possible: as angry, armed black men — an image likely to strike a nerve with the sort of white people who instinctively lock their car doors when rolling through neighborhoods of color.
As if “Jaws” hadn’t given audiences enough reason to fear the water, this story suggests there’s something even scarier than sharks on the high seas. After giving the heroic Hanks plenty of screen time, the trailer’s first glimpse of the pirates shows disembodied black hands clutching an AK-47. Machine-gun fire obscures the Somalis’ faces, while Greengrass’ disorienting shaky-cam style abstracts them further, reducing these desperate men to one-dimensional villains. (It’s as if the trailer wants to exploit the same gut-level panic Hanks satirized in “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” where his Wall Street character overreacts when confronted by two African-Americans in the Bronx.)
Thankfully, the film itself is far more nuanced than the marketing department would have you believe. After withholding their faces for the better part of two minutes, the trailer finally fixes on Barkhad Abdi (playing Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse) as he threatens, “Look at me. Look at me! I’m the captain now.” And look at him the film does, admirably allowing this unfamiliar Minnesota-found actor to hold his own opposite a star as formidable as Hanks.
It’s unfortunate that dramatizing the daring David-and-Goliath attack provides further publicity to Muse, who enjoyed plenty of attention after his capture, when his grinning photo was circulated all around the world. That said, Greengrass recognizes that what makes Capt. Phillips’ story worth telling isn’t simply the beat-by-beat re-creation of what he went through, but the broader context — a situation so complex it virtually demands its own documentary.
Lucky for us, a film called “Stolen Seas” exists to do just that, examining the hijacking of another freighter, the CEC Future, from all sides. (That same real-world incident also inspired Tobias Lindholm’s terrific “A Hijacking,” another tense, if not quite Greengrass-flashy, based-on-a-true-story thriller.) If “Captain Phillips” left you burning to know more about piracy, you owe it to yourself to see “Stolen Seas,” which radically altered my perception of the subject. Over the course of four years, director Thymaya Payne spent significant time on the ground in Somalia, examining the roots of the problem and even managing to slip cameras into the hands of actual pirates. What he finds couldn’t be further removed from the Hollywood myth of the romantic swashbuckler. Despite that legacy, as best I can tell, Greengrass gets it right.
What did you think of “Captain Phillips”?