It’s not about a man who has lost his ship

For the last couple of weeks, when talking about the movie Captain Phillips, Mark Kermode’s been repeating a line:

Paul Greengrass says it’s a story about globalisation, and Tom Hanks says it’s about a bloke who gets kidnapped by pirates.

It’s a paraphrase of a conversation he had with Greengrass while filming for the Culture Show, which he repeated on the Kermode and Mayo podcast a couple of weeks ago.

Greengrass is right. But his rightness is about more than what the film is about. It’s a rightness of perspective on the world that thinks the world is bigger than me and mine and the things that come through my door and through my television, and that bigger world and the people in it matter as much as I do – and the kind of stories that film can and should tell.

Throughout the film, Tom Hanks’ character, Richard Phillips, acts like a guy who has lost ship and wants to get it back. And he does what he has to do to try and make that more likely. I get that. I get why he does the things he does, especially on the ship once the pirates are aboard. But. The things he does and the way he does them show that he doesn’t really do the pirates the justice to think that they might have brains in their heads and see through his ruses. Because they’re just pirates who’ve taken his ship.

But to Greengrass they’re more than that. They’re human, all of them. They come from somewhere – they want to get out of somewhere. To lift themselves off the bottom of the global food chain from a place where they’re controlled by the whims and guns of others to a place where they get to be in control of their destinies.

Phillips’ behaviour might work in getting the pirates off his ship, but it also makes the interaction with the pirates more tense, exacerbating the situation as it continues – to the point at which he comes perilously close to screwing up the navy’s rescue attempts. There was more than one moment when I just wanted to yell at him, “Sit down and shut up, you MORON.”

But this lets Greengrass show Phillips and his crew (as a microcosmic symbol of America) as a part of the global problem. When Phillips says to Muse, “There’s got to be more than fishing or piracy,” he is as Muse points out (not unkindly), assuming that the opportunities his homeland have offered him are on the table everywhere. He can’t seem to get his head around the idea that this is, actually, as Muse says, “Business, just business.” This is just how Muse is able to participate and move up the foodchain that is the global economy. His alternative is nothing, or death.

And so, at the end, Muse wants to believe that it’s going to work out. He has to believe it – because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. It’s the same optimistic instinct that led him to believe that he could take the Maersk Alabama and take on Captain Phillips – and probably to take up piracy in the first place – the belief that there is something better than the life he was born into in a small village on the coast in Somalia, and he gets to choose to believe it. The tragedy of the piece is that the ‘better world’ he reaches is a US jail.

The last film I watched that dealt with Somalia was Black Hawk Down, a horrendous, goodie vs. baddie, unempathetic train wreck of a film that not only presented a terrible picture of the situation in Somlia, but quite possibly made it worse in the story it told to an American audience who have the influence of an electorate on US foreign policy. Captain Phillips could have been another such film.

That it isn’t says all you need to know about Paul Greengrass’ talent as a director. The ability to tell this story in a way that is simple, engaging, exciting, and tense, and will make for a big, popular movie, but also in away that is clearly aware of the world in which the story is taking place – and in which the story is being watched – and which makes you think about it, even if you don’t go deeper than hearing a couple of well placed lines, is something that very few directors have. Long may he continue.

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