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February 21, 2014
Shark Bite Theatre
Captain Phillips: Not Actually a Pirate Movie
by Andrew E. Lindsay

Almost 20 years ago a movie came out that was based on actual events. It had some pretty movie stars, a huge budget, some mind-blowing special effects, and a director with an ego almost as big as the Titanic itself. It did really well at the box office, even though everybody knew when they bought their tickets how it would end: the boat sinks.

But most of what happened in that film was pure fiction. After all, everybody knows the ship hit an iceberg in the northern Atlantic and nearly everyone aboard the unsinkable flagship of the White Star Lines was lost in the icy deep.

But what we didn’t know was the fictional romantic entanglements that went on between a woman of privilege and a young artist who won passage in a poker game, so James Cameron told us that story with the worst maritime disaster in history as the backdrop.

Fair enough; ships full of people are ships full of stories, so why not amalgamate a love story with a disaster movie? It’s like Earthquake meets Sleepless in Seattle. Kinda.

The problem for me is that James Cameron, like so many other filmmakers in Hollywood, doesn’t actually understand what love is. So they show us things that are supposed to be love, but that are actually lust.

They pretend that sacrifice ex post facto negates acts of betrayal and infidelity, never understanding that true love is never born of a lie, and it doesn’t have to involve passionate, onscreen lovemaking or beautiful people disrobing.

I’m not actually trying to sink a movie that’s been out for years; it just struck me that there are some tremendous similarities between Titanic and Captain Phillips. But there are also some wonderful differences.

First, the similarities. Both movies are about a really big ship (one filled with a huge crew and lots of passengers, the other with a very small crew and lots of cargo containers). Both focus on choices made by the captain and the resulting consequences that affect those aboard, those at home, and the fate of their respective vessels.

And both of them attempt to show us what courage and fear and hate and love look like.

The differences, however, are worth examining. One cost somewhere in excess of 200 million dollars and has raked in nearly 700 million since its release. The other cost a measly 55 million dollars to make and did just over a hundred million dollars at the box office. And those figures represent a much larger gap if adjusted for inflation, but that would involve math. And I don’t do math.

One takes place in 1912, the other nearly 100 years later in 2009. One ship runs into an iceberg, the other has a run-in with pirates.

Because they both involve documented historical incidents, we know that the Titanic sinks along with her captain, but we also know that Richard Phillips (captain of the Alabama) survives to write a book about his experience, which is the basis for the movie. And since it was only a few years ago, many people actually remember following the story in the news at the time.

The gist of the story of Captain Phillips is that the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship with a crew of about twenty, is hijacked nearly 150 miles off the coast of Somalia by four desperate pirates in a small fishing boat.

The heavily armed Somalis board the enormous freighter and demand a ten million dollar ransom, and Captain Phillips is placed in the daunting position of trying to protect the lives of his crew and his cargo with nothing but his wits.

Tom Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, and it is immediately obvious why the man already has two Oscars on his mantle. Actually, I don’t know where he keeps them; they may be in the trunk of his car, but I’m assuming they’re on display in his house somewhere.

Anyway, his performance is natural and brilliant and believable, even as an unbelievable situation unfolds. I found myself wondering, many times, if I would have been able to make the decisions he did over the course of those several surreal hours.

His quick thinking alerted the military (who ultimately arrive and take control of the situation), but it was not just his decisiveness that impressed me, it was his selflessness.

Where Titanic was a movie that pretended to be about love, Captain Phillips actually was a love story. The film opens with Captain Phillips and his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), driving him to the airport so he can fly to his assignment with the Alabama.

On the way, they talk about their kids in a way that parents do in those moments when they realize the world their kids are inheriting is messier and more complicated than the one they themselves grew up in. Richard reflects on how hard it is to get ahead now without a degree, so different than when he was coming up through the ranks.

Much of their love and concern is nonverbal; it is evident in the glances, the things they don’t say, the way their hands touch.

We see his love for her at sea when, after their first brush with the pirates, he emails her and tells her that while he is having some challenges breaking in a new crew, it’s pretty much business as usual so she needn’t worry about him.

But we also see his love for his crew. When it becomes obvious the pirates are coming aboard, he orders most of the crew below to lock themselves in a dark corner of the engine room, while he and two others stay on the bridge. When one of the pirates threatens to kill one of his officers, Captain Phillips pleads that if someone should be shot, it should be the captain, not a crew member.

Later we see Captain Phillips allow himself to be taken hostage aboard the lifeboat, ensuring the safety of his crew and his ship. Even as he is abused and held hostage, he tries to help two of his captors with serious wounds they sustained during the assault.

And later still, when the whole incident has turned into a stalemate between the pirates and the United States Navy, he pleads with the youngest of the pirates to give himself up and save his life. In the midst of negotiations between the pirates and the Navy, he begs the negotiator to make sure that his family knows he loves them.

Ultimately, as things go from bad to worse, he finds a pen and paper and scrawls a hasty letter to his wife and children, again expressing his love for them and the regret that he will not see them again in this life.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the Navy Seals finally take care of business because, as mentioned earlier, this was all over the news just a few years ago. Watching it all unfold, from start to finish, is an edge-of-your-seat adrenaline rush, despite the fact that you know how it ends.

But what may surprise you is that this isn’t really a story about pirates or ships or special forces saving the day. It’s a love story. Not a formulaic, fabricated story about people succumbing to basic animal instincts and steaming up the windows in the back seat of a car, dumped into a story about an actual human tragedy, but a true story about true love.

True love is what happens millions of times a day, all over the world, when men and women make commitments to each other and keep them. They get married and make promises to each other and to their unborn children. They get jobs and make promises to their employees, their customers, and the people they’re responsible for.

They make sacrifices, show kindness, and find courage in the face of adversity. And sometimes they even exemplify the words spoken 2,000 years ago, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Oddly enough, in another difference from the other movie, that line was said by the real King of the World.


Copyright © 2019 by Andrew E. Lindsay Printed from NauvooTimes.com