Analysis of Captain Phillips and the Portrayal of Terrorism in the Movie

Introduction

Directed by Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips is a portrayal of a real-life hijacking that occurred in 2009 when four armed Somali terrorists took control of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama. At the time of its hijacking, the cargo ship was being manned by a crew of just 20 sailors that were in the process of hauling tons of cargo including food from the United Nations World Food Program that was designated for a number of African countries. In the movie, the critically acclaimed American Actor Tom Hanks gives the performance of a lifetime in his role as the eponymous Phillips who is a hard-working sea captain that pilots ships through treacherous waters off the Somali coast. This paper will provide an analysis of the movie Captain Phillip as well as the portrayal of terrorism within the movie.

The movie opens with what is a postcard-perfect shot of a white house in Vermont inside of which Captain Phillips is shown to be packing and checking up on his route. Philips and his wife, Andrea are soon other way to the airport and talk about their kids, the future and the challenges that their children will face in a fast-changing world. The scene portrays intimacy and has the effect of humanizing Phillips. In directing the movie, Paul Greengrass is observed to employ the use of quick camera work as is depicted by the fact that while in one minute Phillips is shown hugging his wife at the airport, in the next he is walking down the decks of his ship the Maersk Alabama, testing its various unlocked security gates and directing his crew to run through an anti-piracy security safety drill. Almost immediately after the crew finish up on their safety drill, they are confronted by a real-world threat in the form of two rapidly approaching skiffs full of Somali terrorists. Phillips and his crew manage to dodge and evade the skiffs by increasing their speed and shifting courses so as to churn up a series of destabilizing waves that damage the engine on one of the terrorist’s skiffs while the second skiff withdraws after Phillips makes a false call to a U.S. Navy ship. The next day, one of the terrorist ships returns with four heavily armed terrorists that are able to board the Maersk Alabama and start a distressing siege. The crew of the cargo ship go into hiding when the ship is boarded and the terrorists only manage to capture three hostages.

The leader of the Somali terrorists Muse (Barkhad Abdi) delivers an outstanding performance in the movie despite the fact that he had no previous acting experience and his skinny bravado is quite memorable. In one of the movies most memorable scenes, Captain Phillips offers the terrorists $30,000 from the ship’s safe but Muse refuses the money and rhetorically asks the captain “30,000 dollars, am I a beggar?” This is soon followed by a cat and mouse game between the ship’s crew members and the four terrorists that end with the crew forcing the terrorists off the ship and the terrorists making off with Captain Phillips and taking him hostage abroad a covered lifeboat.

The thunderous naval firepower and swirling helicopters that characterize the movie’s final act cause it to be broadly characterized as an action movie. Replete with night vision navy seal deployments, nerve wrecking claustrophobic lifeboat scenes and cross-hair-tension where big boats become giant, captivating characters, the movie is able to successfully cause its audience to suspend its disbelief. In the movie’s final scene, Tom Hanks, who has been delivering a tremendous performance throughout delivers a new career performance when the captain develops post-traumatic stress. The life-like portrayal of Phillip’s post-traumatic stress has the effect of raising the standards on what an action thriller based on a true-story can do. In this movie, Greengrass is able to successfully demonstrate that it is actually possible for mainstream cinema to not only be intelligent and visceral, but also successfully captivate its audience’s attention.

The depiction of terrorism in Captain Phillips draw the audience to the reality that there is a form of 21-century piracy that has nothing to do with football, illegal downloads or the character of Captain Jack Sparrow played by Johnny Depp swashbuckling through the scenes of a Disney franchise movie. The existential realities of modern-day Somali piracy are an interesting, but unexpected theme in the movie. In a conversation between the Pirate-terrorist Captain Muse and Captain Phillips, Muse reveals that one of the reasons that drove him and his colleagues into piracy is the illegal fishing that has been going on off the Somali coast that has had the effect of reducing the volume of fish the local Somali fishermen are able to catch, and the revenues that they are able to generate from this activity. Ever since the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, the warring clans, warlords and different factions have been unable to reunite the country (Meredith, 2011). This has resulted in the development of a situation where the country’s maritime regions have been left exposed to the ravages of illegal fishing as there is no government force to help in patrolling and protecting this region (Hansen, 2011).

At first, exasperated Somali fishermen took to attacking foreign trawler to extract heavy fines from fishermen at knifepoint. This eventually developed into the full-blown terrorism practice of hostage-taking and extortion. Not to be left behind, the local terrorist organizations eventually entered into the piracy business and began to target ships that were not connected to the initial grievances of the fishermen in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden (Menkhaus, 2009). This caused the piracy that had been rampant along the Somali coast to evolve into terrorism.

The maritime terrorism in the Captain Phillips movie is a duplication of the basic strategy of Somali terrorist attacks over the years although the weapons and equipment that are used by these terrorists have been progressively upgraded and the tactics have been developed that allow for these terrorists to strike even those vessels that are far away from the Somali coast (Mineau, 2010). In a similar manner to the movie, Somali terrorists operating in the Gulf of Aden tend to attack ships from small, open and highly powered fishing boats that are known as skiffs. While one or two skiffs provide fire cover, the attacking skiff races across the ocean and catches up with the target ship. The terrorists on the attack skiff then enter the ship using ladders (Pham, 2010). Once the terrorists are onboard, they quickly subdue the crew, hold the crew members hostage and command them to steer the ship towards the Somali coast (Percy and Shortland, 2013). In the movie, Muse and his fellow terrorists were unable to fully execute this tactic as the crew members were able to hid themselves in the engine room from where they were able to disable the ship and prevent the terrorists from steering it to the Somali coast.

A variant of this this strategy takes place when fishing vessels are hijacked for the purpose of being used as a mother ship. This is seen to be the case in the movie where the U.S. Navy identifies the mother ship as a fishing boat that had previously been captured by the Somali terrorists. In the movie, the mother ship tows the skiffs until they are able to identify a suitable target. The Skiffs only deploy once they identify a suitable target which is in this case the Maersk Alabama. In real-world situations, terrorists often hijack fishing vessels and use them to move around the shipping lanes without their being recognized as terrorists by naval forces. In addition to this, these fishing vessels are used to cover long journeys across the Indian Ocean. The motherships are usually abandoned once they are no longer required or the naval forces start becoming suspicious of their operations.

In the movie, the terrorists remove the captain from the ship with the objective of holding him hostage so as to extort a ransom from the ship’s owners and discourage any potential attack on the terrorists as they escape to the Somali mainland. The terrorists in the movie appear to operate with a strict code of conduct that compels them to try and keep their hostages alive and in a reasonable condition. This is shown by Muse’s efforts to try and protect Captain Phillips from being abuse by his fellow terrorists.

Muse and his fellow terrorists are shown to be merely the footmen of the warlord Garaad who is ultimately the person in charge of the region where Maersk Alabama was captured as it sailed across. The terrorists operating along the Somali operate in zones that are controlled by different warlords. These warlords are ultimately responsible for all of the terrorist activities that take place in their regions and pocket the lion’s share of any ransom that is received for the return of captured ships. This aspect is illustrated in the movie in a conversation that takes place between Captain Phillips and Muse where Muse boasts of having captured a Greek ship in the previous year that was able to net the terrorists 6 million dollars in ransom money. However, when Captain Phillips asks Muse why he was still engaging in pirate-terrorism despite his having netted such as huge amount of money within the previous year, Muse appears to get annoyed at the Captain and orders him to keep quiet. The central role that is played by the warlords in the terrorist activities is also illustrated by the fact that it is these warlords that order Muse and the other terrorists to get on board their skiffs and go and earn them some money by capturing ships.

The conversation between Muse and Captain Phillips provides a brief snapshot of the extent and the impact of the terrorist activities that are conducted off the Somali coast. While these activities have experienced a considerable decline in recent years, they were at their height responsible for considerable costs not only in increased operating expenses for the global shipping industry, but also in the number of lives that were lost (Bellish, 2012). The potential economic impact of the terrorism conducted by terrorists such as Muse is illustrated by taking into consideration the fact that well over 90% of the goods traded across the world are transported by sea and that about 40% of these good are transported through the Gulf of Aden (Dutton, 2015). It is estimated that in 2011 alone, the terrorism activities conducted by Somali terrorists were responsible for costing the global economy between 6.6 and 6.9 billion US dollars (Bane, 2013). Over 80% of this cost was borne by the global shipping industry that was forced to spend about 2.7 billion dollars in that year alone to reroute ships or cause these ships to increase their speed so as to avoid terrorist attacks. Forcing ships to increase their speeds in a bid to avoid terrorist attacks not only leads to increased fuel consumption by these ships, but also has the effect of causing a considerable degree of wear and tear to the ship engines that are expensive to repair. In a bid to minimize the losses that they incurred as a direct result of the terrorism activities that took place along the Somali coastline in 2011, the shipping industry is observed to have paid about $635 million in special insurance premiums. These special insurance premiums allowed for ships to obtain special kidnapping, war and ransom insurance policies that helped to indemnify them from any potential losses that they might face as a result of terrorist hijacking. The record number of ship hijackings that took place in 2011 resulted in the shipping industry transferring $160 million in ransom payments that was delivered to terrorists to release ships that had been captured in successful hijackings. The money that was paid in ransom to terrorists operating as terrorists was re-routed into Somalia’s pirate economy and helped to provide additional resources that were used to fund additional piracy operations (Bowden and Basnet, 2012).

While it is the human cost of the pirate-terrorism phenomenon that tends to capture media attention, of great concern is that not all pirate-terrorism incidents are eventually resolved in a successful manner. While the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in 2009 ended in a successful hostage rescue that was undertaken by US Navy Seals, there are however other incidents such s the hijacking of the civilian yacht, Quest in 2011 that are not as successful and left four American hostages dead as a result of a failed rescue attempt. In addition to this, most piracy incidents tend to go completely unnoticed such as the 35 hostages that were killed in 2011 during the course of the various pirate-terrorism-related incidents that took place during that year (Hurlburt, 2013).\

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