Captain Phillips Is Not Okay

captain phillips posterThere is a moment, towards the end of Paul Greengrass’ true-life actioner Captain Phillips, in which the eponymous sailor played by Tom Hanks is simply overcome. The violence and strain have so rattled his brain that he cannot form words. Asking him if he is okay is a question he cannot answer.

Watching this scene, I notice two things: the first is that Tom Hanks is not cut out for action films but he is cut out for emotion. The second is that Paul Greengrass has made me feel—to a much shallower degree—like Captain Phillips. I sit in my theater seat, holding my free Captain Phillips t-shirt, wondering if I am okay. Is this okay?

somali pirates captain phillipsThis is the second film about high-seas piracy I’ve watched this year. The first, the Danish film A Hijacking, did not involve the military (as, I understand, is the case with most modern piracy events). It put a believable crew in the path of believable Somalis and contrasted their experiences with that of the businessmen who negotiated the ransom. It was a film which gave me some awareness of what it must be like to get caught in a situation of that sort.

Captain Phillips is not that sort of film. Unlike A Hijacking, it bases its tale on the true story of Richard Phillips who did indeed survive a similar piracy attempt off the coast of Somalia. Similar, but not that similar to what is portrayed in Greengrass’ film, as scripted by Billy Ray in a style somewhere between 3rd grade theater production and US Armed Forces recruiting commercial.

tom-hanks-in-captain-phillips-2013-movie-image-600x337If something can be explained with dialogue, better just say it. If it’s important, have the character repeat it.

Phillips captains a giant cargo ship. He and his crew are attacked and boarded by pirates, whom we first meet in their village in Somalia. This scene taught me something new. Shaky cam is much much worse when you’re trying to follow subtitles. It’s like trying to read the newspaper while vomiting.

In a way only remotely similar to reality, Phillips and his crew square off against the pirates who are all able to speak English but otherwise are as dumb as a pile of rocks who left school at 12. Minnesotan cab driver Barkhad Abdi plays the chief pirate better than any cab driver could hope to, in his first acting role ever. He can make crazy eyes as well as but not as fetchingly as Mary Louise Parker. Also, he can tremble convincingly and shout. More than that was not demanded of him in this picture.*

But if you have nothing nice to say, you can at least be brief, as my mother should have said briefly. The thing about this movie is simply: why?

635156143008043931_Captain_Phillips_Still5Who are you that you’d want to watch a film about a normal guy who survives a horrible ordeal, partly due to his bravery and calm head, and partly due to the terrible might of the US Navy. Mostly due to Navy SEAL snipers if we’re being frank. Watching A Hijacking, I could relate to the pirates. I could relate to the crew. I could even relate somewhat to the company men who handled the purse strings.

Captain Phillips just made me sad. There is no glory in destroying fools, particularly since the pirate chief—in real life—was all of 15 or 16 years old. Yeah. Four Somali ex-fisherman vs. a destroyer and a frigate. I wonder how that story ends?

So: why? Am I supposed to watch Captain Phillips and swell with ‘America Fuck Yeah’ pride? Is it supposed to trickle its way into the hands of proto-pirates in the Horn of Africa to discourage them from messing with the red, white, and blue? Or am I supposed to take pleasure in seeing men killed and in seeing Tom Hanks survive—as if this were fiction and not some reflection of the world?

I really don’t know. I liked Greengrass’ kinetic style when he was filming fictional super spies. When he’s warping around a real story, I am not enthralled. I am, rather, mortified. I am not thrilled; I am depressed.

Is this movie okay? Am I okay?

I’m not too upset to answer, but why don’t you go ahead and guess anyway.



Something has been bothering me since I wrote this last night. It’s about Barkhad Abdi and the way in which a face such as his is used as shorthand for ‘dangerous.’ On the one hand, Abdi is authentically Somali—born there—and so a reasonable casting choice. On the other hand, I wonder if he is used as a caricature; like Micky Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A lot of this film is written in shorthand. The excellent Catherine Keener gets all of 3 minutes of screen time in which to show off her wedding ring and discuss the Phillips children so we know the Cap’n is married with kids. Is Abdi’s beautiful Somali face used in a similar fashion, so that we xenophobic Americans see it and quickly recognize danger? That’s not a question I can answer. I just know that in the pit of my stomach the question has been churning since the film ended.

Abdi is excellent for a non-professional actor. Is that why he was chosen as a foil for Tom Hanks? Or was it more for how he looked: foreign and dangerous.

Somalia may be a perilous place. Somalis are no more dangerous than anyone else who had the misfortune to grow up in Somalia.

I hope that Barkhad Abdi gets a chance to act in more films; that his face can be associated with a nice romantic comedy. That he doesn’t end up like certain Arabic or Eastern European or African-American actors who find themselves continually playing villains; because that’s what we expect those sort of faces to turn out to be. Because we’re xenophobic and need the entire United States Navy to protect us from those few dangerous men with guns who don’t live right down the street.

You do know that, right? That non-Americans are afraid to travel here because we’re a bunch of dangerous gun-crazy nuts. It’s true. Both parts of that sentence are true.

5 responses on “Captain Phillips Is Not Okay

  1. I watched this a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was pretty good and I thought Tom Hanks was good in it but the film doesn’t really get into the real politics of the situation beyond the few lines about the Somalis being fishermen and that’s the main thing I took away from it.

    In regards to your addendum, you make a fair point. Tom Hanks casting is shorthand for middle of the road American decency… the ordinary guy caught in an extraordinary situation but the Somalis are literally just the typical bad guy archtypes you might expect.. the young inexperienced kid who is really just frightened, the ‘crazy’ one, the out of his depth leader.

    • yeah. i read a bunch of rave reviews of this film but just don’t see it. i found it boring and depressing.

  2. I usually really enjoy the movies I watch, otherwise I would’t watch them. Same goes for this movie. Though I did notice some really interesting mind programming at the end. I’ve done a lot of travelling, a bit in Africa, but not somalia. I found myself empathizing a lot with their plight. I don’t think the Somali leader is portrayed as evil. Actually there is only one “bad” character in the film, as movie formulas dictate there must always be a bad guy. He is the somali guy “from the other village”. If you thought this movie was boring, you’d probably think Die Hard was boring as well. They are quite similar in tone. The thing I liked most about the movie was the issues regarding trust and friendship. How do you know who to trust, when do you make the decision to trust someone. Many times the Captain Ryan character uses friendship and help to gain trust, and then manipulate. They develop a strange bond, Hanks character trying to fill a father type role for the hijackers. (echoing the prevailing Western mentality of oh, how do we help those poor africans? while at the same time keeping them completely subservient economically)

    Well that is a seque to the critisisms. I noticed some potentially powerful mind control at the end of the film.

    Through the movie, the phrase “It’s gonna be OK” is repeated to the Hank’s captain by the somali pirate captain. It’s repeated 3 times.

    (SPOILER ALERT) the final, emotionally tense scene ends in bloodshed and trauma for Captain Ryan. It is particularly gruesome, and for the emotionally senstitive, it would trigger some emotional trauma as well. The subconscious mind does not differentiate between real and simulated experiences. Then we have a kind of surrogate scene for the audience, where the shocked captain is talked out of the trauma by the Naval “foreman”. Instead of sinking into his grief and shock and experiencing it, it’s repeatedly interrupted, and by design, so is the audience’s mind conditioned. She directly says “I will be your foreman”. This is the most subversive and clever kind of mind control available. The public is soothed into trusting the kind Naval military nurse, into a state of submission, like a birthing experience.

    If anything should ever happen, well, we are already trained who we can trust. Her final words? “It’s gonna be OK”.

    • Hey Seaweed. That’s a lot to chew on.

      It’s been a while since I watched Cap’n Phil. Interesting insight into the mind control at the end. Not certain I’d phrase it the way you do, but you’re on to something. Is it mind control or is it dramatic irony?

      The only thing you say that I take issue with is comparing this film with Die Hard (which I love). Die Hard is an action film — one of the best that genre has ever produced. This is a thriller, of the socio-political bent. They’re similar in that they both involve guns, but that’s about it.

      And I didn’t like Cap’n Phil. I thought Greengrass’ style didn’t fit his subject matter and his themes were vague and fractured. But I’m glad you liked it. I’m always glad when someone likes a film, even when it’s one I don’t care for. I have no need for people to share my opinions; I’m just happy to share them.

  3. Yes I am also not really attached to my opinions… I agree about Die Hard, it’s not really the same film at all… though the pacing of the part where the captains are searching through the engine room really reminded me of Die Hard, so that kind of stuck in my head.

    I looked up the budget of this movie. as I was watching it I thought, holy crap how much did this cost? a cargo frieghter, 2 naval destroyers, aircraft carrier, and military helicopters. Budget was 55 million! Compare that to the epic thriller Talledega Nights (another fine film), with a budget of 75 million!! Perhaps they had a few freebies here and there huh? So no wonder the themes were fractured.

    About the mind control, well what brought it up was some reading I did about MKULTRA. check out this article
    I don’t know much more than this but apparently it does exist. Compare the final 30 minutes of the film to this list (sourced from article):

    The victim/survivor is called a “slave” by the programmer/handler, who in turn is perceived as “master” or “god.” About 75% are female, since they possess a higher tolerance for pain and tend to dissociate more easily than males. Monarch handlers seek the compartmentalization of their subject’s psyche in multiple and separate alter personas using trauma to cause dissociation.

    The following is a partial list of these forms of torture:

    1. Abuse and torture

    2. Confinement in boxes, cages, coffins, etc, or burial (often with an opening or air-tube for oxygen)

    3. Restraint with ropes, chains, cuffs, etc.

    4. Near-drowning

    5. Extremes of heat and cold, including submersion in ice water and burning chemicals

    6. Skinning (only top layers of the skin are removed in victims intended to survive)

    7. Spinning

    8. Blinding light

    9. Electric shock

    10. Forced ingestion of offensive body fluids and matter, such as blood, urine, feces, flesh, etc.

    11. Hung in painful positions or upside down

    12. Hunger and thirst

    13. Sleep deprivation

    14 Compression with weights and devices

    15. Sensory deprivation ”

    I think Ben Stiller was poking fun at this in the movie Zoolander. That’s where I got my name from :)

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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