Captain Phillips – A “Theo-Political” Review

(Spoiler Alert: If you were alive in 2009 then you know how Captain Phillips ends. So if you weren’t paying attention to the news when this story happened you deserve to have the movie spoiled.)

Captain Phillips 

Over the last few days I have seen several reviews of Captain Phillips that point out that American Exceptionalism is celebrated in this film. Those who are critical of American Exceptionalism have decried the fact that this movie celebrates America’s unrivaled power and prowess in dealing with our enemies. They point out the fact that it celebrates the fact that in this story the American military saves the day, it’s a portrait of American militarism. Those who celeberate America’s unique role make a similar observation about the film.; at the end of the day America’s military saves the day. America’s power is unrivaled and our military prowess is exceptional. We should celebrate this. Both these positions miss something critical about the movie, namely that this film is not so simple. American isn’t the hero. America is not the villain. This movie isn’t even about America. Its about Captain Phillips……

Much like real life, this film shows the fact that life is more complicated than we realize. Its hard to tell who the “good guys” are and who the “bad guys are.” We tend to assume that Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama are the good guys, and the Somali pirates are the bad guys. At least that is what it looks like upon first glance, but that is simply not the case. The Maersk Alabama illustrates the negative aspects of capitalism. It represents greed and selfishness. Think back to the conversation that the Captain has with his crew after the initial pirate attack. There is a discussion about the inherent dangers of sailing this route. Neverthless, the company must run this shipping line. When the sailors complain about the dangers, Captain Phillips tells them that nobody forced them to sail this route, they signed up for it because they wanted the money. Money is the bottom line. Money is what leads these guys to put their lives in danger. The shipping company even refuses to pay for armed guards because it is an unnecessary expense! Money is what leads this company to risk the lives of these sailors. Our global economy doesn’t care about lives. Money is what matters at the end of the day.

You would think that the Somali pirates are the bad guys. They certainly do some bad things, but are they really the bad guys? The film gives several hints that they are not.  First off the Somali pirates are victims of the Somali warlords. There is a scene in the movie where Muse is telling Captain Phillips of a $6 million pay day a few months prior to these events. When the captain asks him why he is still a pirate if he made $6 million Muse tells him to shut up. The audience knows that these grunts won’t ever see that money. The warlords will use the money to fuel their violent agenda. These pirates are just a pawn in the powers that be wargames. There is another scene in which Captain Phillips asks the pirates why they don’t do something more productive with their life; he asks them “is being a pirate or a fisherman the only thing you can do?” The answer to that question is sadly yes. Why is the answer yes? Economic oppression, American intervention into the region, Civil War, political oppression, western handouts. The factors that limit a Somalian’s prospects at success are endless. Their victimization has led people like Muse to compromise their morals for the sake of survival.  To add insult to injury, the possibility of being fishermen is really off the table too. Muse mentions this in a dialogue between him and the captain. Muse mentions that foreign fishing companies have begun to fish off the Somali coast. Their fishing technology has stripped the sea of its resources, leaving the Somali’s with no fish to catch. The Somali’s were victims of economic greed. Who asked the Somali’s if they could fish off their shores?

So who is the bad guy in this movie? The pirates are violent and don’t have respect for people’s lives. The American economic interests are harming the Somali’s and leading them to do violent things. The truth is that everybody is to blame. The only person who is not guilty is Captain Phillips. Captain Phillips is the only “good guy” in this movie. Now I don’t know whether or not captain Phillips is a Christian or not, but he displays a lot of Christ like behavior. Foretelling his cruxifixion Jesus says “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Self-sacrifice for the sake of others is the greatest expression of love. Captain Phillips is a real life illustration of this kind of love; he willingly steps into the lifeboat with the pirates in order to save his crew. And that is only one of the instances of his self-sacrifice for his crew. Jesus also says “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Bu I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Throughout the film captain Phillips looks out for the best interest of his crew (loving his neighbors) but he also looks out for the best interests of those who captured him! There are several scenes where he tries to offer medical care to the hurt pirates. Especially moving was the scene where he tries to bandage the 16 year old pirate’s foot. There is no reason why he should do this for him, Captain Phillips should let the pirate day, after all they have taken him hostage. However the captain genuinely cares for this boy. He doesn’t want to see him suffer. Maybe the kid reminds him of his own son, or maybe he really cares for him because he is “just a kid.” Neverthless, Captain Phillips loves his enemies.

So when its all said and done we need to remember that this film doesn’t try to give a positive or negative assessment of America or Somalia, it tries to tell the story of a heroic man called Captain Phillips.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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