Captain Muse & ‘Captain Phillips’

If ever there was a film that immediately made the audience feel sympathy for every single character in a band of thieves, ‘Captain Phillips’ is it. Are the bad guys pirates or starved, drug-addicted kids who dare to be cruel if it means living to see better days? That isn’t the focus: not one character is irredeemably bad or sweet in this action packed drama. They’re deeper from first sight. It’s a depth we internalize as viewers. We know from the start that there’s nothing but khat and beatings in the little town by the sea where the pirates scarcely live when they’re not robbing foreign ships. We know that Phillips didn’t do anything commercial to get his respectable gig…he isn’t The Enemy- the banker or the brute investor. It’s just his job, and as he reminds the pirate captain Abduwali Muse (played brilliantly by Barkhad Abdi) in the lifeboat when they take him hostage, “everyone has a boss.” Everyone has a boss who wants what they aren’t willing to work for, pirate captains and cargo ship captains alike, and everyone does what they must to survive. We watch the violent pirates fight to maintain control in order to outwit or outplay the Americans. They reject $30,000 in favor of a bigger win: American insurance money. We know that whether it not Phillips dies at their hands, in some violent dual when the starving, drugged Somali men disagree about their plans, the ones who try so hard to win against magnanimous forces like the U.S. Navy will not get what they fight for. They’ll gain nothing for their struggles, their sacrifice, their bravery over waves, threats, each other, or their bosses. The only way they’ll see America is from inside a jail cell. The trick is not to feel so sorry for them that you miss the point: Phillips reminds us that they won’t win because you’re either a pirate or your someone to do business with, but you cannot be both.

Tom Hanks plays the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a ship carrying cargo to three ports along the Horn of Africa. He is introduced as a family man who is worried about the future of his children; will they find work when they graduate from college? They’re good kids, but the world changed from the time when he was starting out: “You can’t just “keep your head down and do your work” to make a life for yourself these days, so he says to his wife on their way to the airport.

From there, Phillips bids a temporary farewell to the world of his children and their economic future and enters into his new contract as the captain of a ship headed into pirate territory. From the moment he steps on board he seems concerned about the safety of the ship and the preparedness of his new crew. He is the father of two kids and the captain of a huge ship- two constant worries that only intersect when he starts to believe that one threatens the other. When he fights, he fights for his whole life, as well as the lives of his crew, which he saves cleverly and which saves him in the plot.

In spite of extraordinary differences, almost all in circumstance, Muse and Phillips respect one another, forming a kind of pact that divides Muse’s small band if thieves. Two members don’t trust the American, and one other -the youngest- follows the leader and takes Phillips on his word. They want the crew, the money, the valuables. They leave with the captain, an American- a valuable hostage. $10 million for their dream of freedom. In Anerica, Muse will a car and he won’t have to be a pirate anymore. He derives what power he can from his vicious ventures, only to return to his dreams with the fuel of each conquest. When Phillips meets Muse, he’s gaunt and hungry-eyed. He’s also different: he contemplates and he dares to reach forward into the dark, so to speak, which allows them to communicate between lines. Muse wants what Phillips has and imagines that being American means he has plenty to share. Isn’t he right? Can’t America give what Somalis ask for, because they have it? And if the Somalis take their machine guns into their arms and hold them up, and ask again for the right to live without having to raise guns, in essence, can Americans not waiver and change the way things are, because they made them so? It makes sense, Muse makes tragic sense, but Phillips is the only one who will benefit from the right to live. He isn’t to blame, of course. Everyone has a boss.

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