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Captain Phillips – a Somali piracy yarn that tries to salve the US’s conscience

This article is over 8 years, 2 months old
Captain Phillips, a tale of kidnapping on the high seas, promotes its empathy for desperate Somalis—but Dave Sewell says it turns the real villains into heroes
Issue 2376
Muse (Barkhad Abdi) confronts Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks)

Muse (Barkhad Abdi) confronts Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks)

Two men embark on very different journeys in the opening scenes of Paul Greengrass’ new kidnapping thriller Captain Phillips.

The captain of the title (Tom Hanks) is on his way to the eerily vast container ship on which he is to set sail. He remarks to his wife that life has got harder and more competitive since he joined the industry, with 50 men competing for every job.

In the bleak, impoverished coast of what was once a fishing village in Somalia this is literally true. Muse (Barkhad Abdi) has young men clamouring to join him in risking their lives for ransom money.

The tension leading up to their meeting is expertly ratcheted up. Greengrass creates a sense of two basically good men locked in a collision course by forces beyond their control. As Phillips reminds his captor, “we both have bosses”.

Those hoping for a shoot-em-up fuelled by testosterone and jingoism will be disappointed.

Phillips comes across as a quietly competent everyman who just gets on and does his best, and Muse is humanised despite his ruthlessness.

But the real story of Somali pirates is left out of the picture.

There is one line where Muse reminds Phillips that huge trawlers from the West have taken all the fish and wrecked the livelihoods of whole communities. It’s a good retort to Phillips’ claim to be “taking food to starving people in Africa.” 


But it’s given no more credibility as a motivation for Muse than the avarice of his warlord boss or the machismo of his khat-addled henchman.

And while the film makes much of the desperation in Somalia, it turns the butchers responsible into heroes.

The kidnapping of the real Captain Phillips came just months after the end of the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia—a bloody war and two-year occupation designed to smash the government of the Union of Islamic Courts. 

This was the first effective government to emerge in Somalia since US forces were driven out in the 1990s.

The invasion plunged Somalia into a new wave of famine and violence.

So it’s galling to see the US Navy appear in Captain Phillips as benevolent onlookers, whose massive guns serve only to come to the rescue.

When US forces shoot and kill most of the kidnappers, Phillips is visibly shaken.

But the audience in the cinema where I was laughed out loud at the sight of a crestfallen Muse being told that “Captain Phillips is free, all your friends are dead.”

The real Muse is languishing in a US prison, while the real Somalia continues to be bombed and raided by US forces. And for all its handwringing nuance and empathy, this film is firmly on the side of the real villains.

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