If you can get past the bombastic score and the wavering, seasick camera and what is perhaps the hackiest, laziest opening-scene conversation of the year, you might find something remarkable in Captain Phillips: a quietly scathing critique of American exceptionalism, wrapped in a story of American survival.
Captain Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship is boarded by Somali pirates bent on obtaining a ransom, is the victim throughout. Of course we’re rooting for him: he’s trying to protect his crew from gun-toting bad guys! He’s using his wits to frustrate the enemy! He just wants to do his job! And he’s played by universally beloved everyman Tom Hanks!
But consider those bad guys. One of them winds up with broken glass in his foot because (a) the crew proves resourceful in their efforts to slow him down and (b) he has no shoes. Muse, their leader, has to fight his fellow villager just to get the opportunity for this against-all-odds mission. Consider this exchange between the meaty, tricksy Phillips and the hungry, wary Muse. The captain wants to know why Muse keeps doing what he does.
Muse: I got bosses. They got rules.
Captain Phillips: We’ve all got bosses. There’s got to be something besides fishing and kidnapping people.
Muse: Maybe in America. Maybe in America.
“We’ve all got bosses.” True enough, but generally, our American bosses don’t drive up to our homes armed with machine guns in order to motivate us to get to work. Captain Phillips knows the world is changing and the times are uncertain, but he doesn’t know it the way Muse knows it.
So, yeah: on the one hand, it’s kind of awesome to see America rally to the aid of one of its own, a regular guy who winds up in harm’s way. And it makes sense that the kidnapped captain (I’m not giving any more away here than the trailer does) would try to wear down his captors with talk: “You got a problem? It sounds like you got a problem.” But eventually, the lovely long shots of massive Navy gunships trailing behind a tiny lifeboat that is trying to reach the shore start to sink in. (Director Paul Greengrass knows how to serve up a stunning visual; it’s a pity that his close camera work is so woozy.)
Of course, your mileage may vary. Perhaps, to you, this will be a clear case of America preserving civilization and the rule of law while everything else goes to hell in a handbasket. There is that aspect. After all, it wasn’t Richard Phillips who stripped the fish from Somali waters. But I came away with a singular, powerful impression of how Captain Phillips sees We the People vis-à-vis the rest of the world: not vicious, not even indifferent. But rather, blind, uncomprehending, helpless, bloated, incoherent, and covered with the blood of the desperate poor.