The British-born director always had a penchant for going against the mostly jingoistic American style of docudrama filmmaking — where we absolutely at all times need a bad guy who goes against our collective nationalist ideals to root against — with films such as the 9/11-based United 93, which presented the hijackers in a very human, almost spiritual light, and Bloody Sunday, an honest retelling of the 1972 British massacre of Irish civil rights protesters, showing both sides of every conflict, right or wrong. But his latest, Captain Phillips, reaches a new breaking point at which it is impossible to leave the theater without questioning the morality of everything that was just presented on the screen.
Based on a true story, the always-affable Tom Hanks stars as the by-the-book, no-nonsense titular Captain Richard Phillips who was taken hostage by pirates when his shipping vessel, the MV Maersk Alabama, was hijacked off the coast of Somalia in 2009. But, true to Greengrass’ style, this is only half the story. The real heart of the tale lies with newcomer Barkhad Abdi and his stirringly sympathetic performance as Muse, the leader of the pirates.
It’s with Muse that Captain Phillips takes on a wholly different angle than was expected; I started to see him as the true hero of the story. Here’s this incredibly impoverished teen just trying to survive, heroically hijacking this freighter in order to make enough money to feed his family. Sure, we’re trained by the media to call these types criminals or, more than likely, terrorists, but they know hunger and suffering far more than most Americans ever will, and that kind of desperation will lead people to do things they never thought they would.
It goes even deeper than that, however. These pirates are inspired by the American dream of materialism — they repeatedly announce how much they “love America” — and just want a fighting chance to live the same
dream Americans do. It’s such a morally complex line of thought that one
almost starts to feel like a seditionist when siding with the Somalis.
But what especially drives this home is the final hour, when the cavalry shows up in the form of the Navy SEALS. It’s a finale that is hard to watch and even harder to stomach as Phillips goes into shock alongside the audience, not only over the whole ordeal but how the events came to an unfair and unjust conclusion, reminding the viewer over and over again that these were just poor teens — not thrill-killers, not terrorists, not bored kids; just emaciated foreigners who were looking for a way out of poverty.
There are no stylized action sequences, no cool catch phrases when someone gets killed and no easily resolved story. The real Phillips is back out on the sea, and the real Muse is currently serving time in a Terre Haute, Ind., prison. This was real life, and Captain Phillips deals with the very real problems that caused it.
And that’s why Greengrass has got some real cojones. He beat the Michael Bays of the world to the story and told it in a way no one else really has the balls to: with unflinching honesty.