At the beginning of Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, the titular main character played by Tom Hanks drives to the airport with his wife, played by Catherine Keener. In a rather unconvincing New England accent, the freighter captain on his way to haul cargo through the Indian Ocean to Kenya on his boat, the Maersk Alabama, talks about how much he worries about his children. “Used to be, you could just keep your head down and work hard, and you’d be fine,” he says. “Not anymore. I don’t know what kind of world they’re gonna go into.”
At the same time, across the world, a young Somali man named Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, is sleeping in a barren hut. It is obvious he is starving. His village is suddenly invaded by Somali warlords, who make it clear that someone from the village will need to bring them some money, fast, or people will die. Muse, a fisherman, sees no other option. He puts together a crew and some weapons. He will hijack the next freighter they see, and hold it for ransom. The next boat that comes is the Maersk Alabama.
Captain Phillips is a terrific, nail-biting thriller in the vein of Greengrass’s past films, which include The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93 and Bloody Sunday. But this is a film with more on its mind than just ratcheting up tension. This is a movie about the world economy, about how global economic policies that favor corporations over citizens, whatever the country, put people in situations in which they have no way out. The movie certainly takes sides—at no point will you be cheering for Somali pirates to shoot Tom Hanks—but it doesn’t pretend that everyone’s actions are without context. It recognizes that although these two men, Captain Phillips and Muse, may not have much in common, and they may in fact be natural enemies, they were pushed together by the same people. They are not driving actors in their own lives; they are swept away in the current.
Look first at Phillips’ job. The Alabama is owned by Maersk, a Danish conglomerate specializing in international shipping. Maersk knows that the route is dangerous—and also that it’s crippling to the local fishing economy—but it’s quicker and cheaper. Phillips is a rule-follower, a stickler for detail, someone who just wants to do his job, follow orders, and go home. This makes his bosses happy but irritates his crew, who didn’t exactly realize they were signing up for a gig that could involve armed gunmen.
Then look at Muse. He’s no professional criminal: He really does just want to be a fisherman. But he also wants to make a living, just like Phillips, and his options have dwindled to mostly zero. Why? Well, the Somali economy is in tatters, and where he lives, on the shoreline, is barren in large part because the local ecosystem has been decimated by the corporations plowing their freighters through and having little respect for the indigenous population. In the economic vacuum, the warlords have stepped in and taken over. This is all he has. Just like Phillips: He want to do his job, follow orders and go home.
That these two meet is a coincidence – it could have been any boat, and any pirate – but that people like them would come into this battle was foretold by people far above them, many years before. Captain Phillips argues that in this global economy, with the rest of us as pawns to the rich, we are powerless and thus destined just to fight each other. Phillips and Muse never acknowledge, or even know, this bond. But the film does. This is what the film is about.
In one climactic moment, Captain Phillips, attempting in vain one last time to understand his captor, asks him point-blank: “There’s got to be something other than kidnapping people or fishing. You have to have other choices.” Muse looks at Phillips, almost pityingly. He has no idea. “Maybe in America.”
Captain Phillips is about people just trying to get by, who lacking any control of their own lives because of forces larger than them. Maybe in America, Muse believes. Yeah, for now. Maybe. But maybe not forever.