The Nature of Heroism in Captain Phillips

A hijacking at high seas “based on a true story” has all the makings of a stereotypical action flick, but director Paul Greengrass took Captain Phillips in a different direction, constructing it around the “battle of wills” between Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and Muse (Barkhad Abdi). It’s a parallelism not only between East and West, but also between two conceptions of heroism. Muse’s claim to glory rests on Marvel-like foundations: strength and bravado. Phillips, on the other hand, does little more than raise his voice but his quiet heroism carries the day—for it finds its strength in practical wisdom and prudence.

From the get-go, Phillips embodied the methodical Yankee. He took the piracy warnings seriously and sought to ensure that his men were in tip-top shape through extra inspections and drills. He was unpretentious, but asserted authority when the occasion demanded—namely when his men expressed their disgust at the lack of armed guards on such a dangerous voyage with high-powered hoses as their only defense. He was resourceful—like when he led the pirates on to believe that the military had called in air support. Once the bullets began to fly, he took charge of the situation—ordering the crew to the engine room for their protection—and remained courageous even after the ship fell to the pirates. His priority was his crew: “If you’re going to shoot somebody, shoot me!” That was his job as captain. But he also recognized that he held certain advantages over the pirates—and exploited that knowledge to full effect.

But then the tables were turned. Muse himself was captured, and the crew offered a trade, captain for captain. Muse’s partner Bilal cleverly refused the deal unless Phillips was placed in the lifeboat (their chosen means of escape). Phillips knew that if he went in the lifeboat, he wasn’t coming back. To ensure that the pirates leave the ship, however, he jumped in.

Thus, Act II begins, this time with Muse as the protagonist. We saw his heroism at earlier moments in the film—like the time he chose to keep up the attack on the ship even though Phillips led his comrades to believe that the military was sending in air support. But his courage is disconnected from prudence (probably due to his youth). From the start, Phillips offered him $30,000 cash once the raiding party boarded the ship which Muse refused as a pittance. Then Muse decided to kidnap Phillips which incurred the wrath of the US Navy. He was trying to save face, but at what cost? Muse claimed to be doing his job as well, but never coherently expressed how he would achieve it.

When the US Navy became involved, the game was up, but Muse simply would not surrender. He told Phillips that he had gone too far to give up—sealing his own fate, and dooming his team to failure. He could not concede that bravery and muscle on their own are insufficient.

This is a lesson the real Captain Phillips apparently hadn’t learned either. The crew of the real Maersk Alabama allege that Phillips was a “sullen and self-righteous” captain who recklessly ignored the International Maritime Organization’s protocols on anti-piracy protection and may have even purposefully put the ship in danger in order to be made a hostage.

Either way, Seal Team 6 was able to save the day. But Greengrass’s Captain Phillips offers a subtle critique of our modern conception of heroism—borderline machismo bereft of prudence. He demonstrates that real heroism lies in quietly doing one’s job—like he did on the Maersk Alabama relying solely on practical wisdom and prudence with action as a last resort.

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