Captain Phillips comes down to character


Captain Phillips was intense. The pacing, the acting, and the story were all compelling and emotionally draining. It kept my attention from beginning to end. The conflict between Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips and Barkhad Abdi’s Muse provide a strong framework for the narrative. Tom Hanks seemed so comfortable in Phillips’ skin that he was able to put me there as well. Abdi’s performance gave Muse a humanity and even humor, that provided a multi-dimensional shadow to Hanks’ Phillips.

Captain Phillips is an “everyman,” a guy who loves his family, goes to his job, and focuses on doing it well while he is there. His job just happens to be captain of a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. Hanks plays Phillips as a man realistically responding to intense pressure with grace. Hanks’ responses seem completely believable right up until the very last scene, which, had it been overplayed or underplayed, would have rung false.

As captain, Phillips’ job is to assure the safety of the ship, the crew, and its cargo in an environment where the potential for danger is very real. The result is that he requires his crew to follow safety rules even when it’s inconvenient. While he may come off as unnecessarily concerned about the length of their coffee breaks, Phillips manages to communicate the need to get back to work without coming off as an ass. He remains professional and authoritative throughout the ordeal.

After the pirates attack, Phillips responds using protocols already in place to avoid being boarded. Once boarded, he tries to minimize the impact on the crew and cargo. Phillips immediately recognizes that Muse is in trouble as a leader and that this factor makes his situation more dangerous and unpredictable. The conflict between the pirates escalates the tension throughout the film. After his capture Phillips tries to reason with his captors, and even offers to tend their wounds. He addresses the lead pirate Muse with respect, and appeals to logic in negotiations with him.

Muse tries to assert his authority through fear and threat, in the same way his superiors control him. As a pirate Muse enjoys some small status in his community and continues to harbor the false hope that his work will lead to personal profit, but it’s obvious that the profits go higher up the food chain where all the power resides. The script might have provided a bit more backstory for Muse and Somali pirates and the international crime syndicate that runs them, but that could have bogged down the movie.

Muse certainly has much less to work in terms of a crew than Phillips. His crew consists of the volatile Najee who constantly wrestles for control, his inexperienced nephew Bilal, and Elme, who never directly challenges him but tends to question his choices and complain about his decisions. In contrast Phillips’ crew follow his instructions, and follow the set chain of command and set protocols in his absence. Phillips’ crew improvises and adapts as necessary to the challenges of the situation, while Muse’s crew falls apart when their plan falls apart.

In his efforts to negotiate with Muse, Phillips tries to help Muse see that there is no way to salvage his mission, that getting out alive is the best any of them can hope for. For Muse, surrender represents not only loss of the mission but loss of his status in his community, and loss of hope for anything better that what he currently has. As a Somali refugee, perhaps Barkhad Abdi understands this better than most, and brings that understanding to his role in a way that humanized this character for me. The  lifestyle and motives of a Somali pirate might be hard for me to understand, but reluctance to accept a reality that represents loss of hope is a concept I can grasp.

Though based on real events, Captain Phillips and Muse represent the classic relationship between protagonist and antagonist, hero and shadow, in narrative: two characters with certain things in common work toward conflicting goals. Both are leaders who respond to their situation based on the expectations of their respective superiors. Both carry a sense of responsibility for the success of their respective missions. Both are internally motivated to be good at their jobs. This focus on character is what gives Captain Phillips depth and dovetails with its already intense plot.


Comments are closed.