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27 October 2013

Captain Phillips (Review): "Superpower Mentality"

Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips” is based on the harrowing experience of Captain Richard Phillips who was held hostage by Somali pirates in 2009. Greengrass skillfully took the helm and created an outstanding action thriller that would satisfy mature audiences who favor intelligent suspense thrillers like the Bourne series, and young viewers who are more attuned to super hero action-packed movies like Iron Man. 

Tom Hanks is back on form delivering an adept performance that easily draws the audience sympathy towards his character.  “Captain Phillips” is a must-see for people looking for some substance in commercial mainstream cinema.  In fact, you can even say that “Captain Phillips” is the companion movie to the Sandra Bullock starer “Gravity.”

However, if we forgo the real life events in “Captain Phillips,” and scrutinize the film on an ideological level, the film tackles a more political issue. (Gulp! Put on your thinking cap folks, a pseudo-intellectual is about to do his amateurish deconstruction.)

“Captain Phillips” revolves around the captive as the “innocent victim,” and the villains as “soulless amoral individuals” whose only agenda is to steal money and they have no qualms about taking human lives to accomplish their goals.  It is the classic template of the “evil” preying on the “good.” Luckily, Greengrass managed to insert certain scenes and dialogues to make the audience understand the motivation of the so-called “soulless captors.”  Still, the audience only gets to see snippets of the Somali side, but without those snippets, “Captain Phillips” could have easily been simplistically black and white, literally and figuratively.

First, it is important to separate the Captain Phillips of the film from the real Captain Phillips because real life takes on a fictional dimension when adapted into film. The celluloid Captain Phillips is the moral center in Greengrass’s narrative.  Phillips’s antithesis is the filmic Abduwali Muse, the young Somali pirate.  The two captains operate on different paradigm (in plain English, in different worlds).  The American captain is privileged and dutifully fulfills his job under the operating system of his capitalist bosses.  The American captain worries about the future of his children who will soon face a more competitive world.  The Somali captain does not have that luxury.  He is a captain not by choice but by circumstance. He must steal or he will die. 

The ships of the two captains are symbols of their worlds. The large American ship is loaded with material goods.  It is ill equipped to defend itself from sea bandits not because it does not have the means but no one has ever assumed that someone could be so foolish to attack something so huge.  It is superpower mentality.  We are so big; who would dare attack us?

The Somali ship is small, old and the captain has to compete in order to man his sea craft with the right people and engine.  It is the weak with nothing to lose.  The Somali captain of the film appeared to be insane in trying to attack a big ship.  From a superpower point of view, the only explanation is madness.  From a point of view of the disenfranchised people in the margins, the only explanation is survival. 

The open sea, devoid of borders, is the site of the battle.

The ideological contest of the film begins when the two captains meet face to face, and the battle of the two, if it were explored to the maximum, would have transformed the film into something radically engaging. But, that is perhaps another movie.

In the end, real events have to be followed and the Captain Phillips of the film must remain the moral hero, and the skillful rescue of the United States navy must be highlighted. From a potentially filmic discussion of the two “realities” of our world, the rich and the poor, the film eventually becomes a rescue movie.  We are back to “Saving Private Ryan,” which, by the way, also starred Tom Hanks.

Image created using Bitstrips
In one angle, the film became pseudo-propaganda for the might of the United States of America.  America reasserting itself as the only superpower in the world even in the celluloid arena, which has now become the only viable arena America can successfully asserts its might without facing international obstacles.  In American films, America is able to assert its strength, its moral standard, and more importantly, execute and finish the job.  Some recent examples are “Olympus Has Fallen,” “White House Down,” “Man of Steel” and “Iron Man.”

In real life, America does not always have it easy. Iraq and Syria are some examples.  Perhaps this explains the proliferation of super hero movies that espouse more American power than world power. Superheroes are Americans such as Superman, Batman, Iron Man and majority of the members of the Avengers, except Thor but he is still allied with the Americans.

Bottom line, “Captain Phillips” is an outstanding movie not just because it is action packed. It also exposes the collective psychology of the people who made the film, and the world audience who root for the hero, and that world audience includes us Filipinos. 

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