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Helplessness and hope in Captain Phillips

Josh Larsen

Captain Phillips emphasizes, above all else, its main character’s helplessness and vulnerability. This is an odd direction for an action movie to take, yet one Christians especially should appreciate.

Based on an actual 2009 incident, the film stars Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips, captain of an American container ship that gets hijacked by a band of Somali pirates. Perhaps it’s a desire to be as true to the real events as possible that has kept the movie from becoming Die Hard on a boat (plus, we already have Under Siege). Whatever the motivation, as played by Hanks, Phillips is a man who begins the movie in supreme control but finds his authority gradually stripped away.

Captain Phillips, in essence, documents a transfer of power between the title character and Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a Somali fisherman who overtakes the ship with three desperate underlings at his command. After first engaging in a series of hostile negotiations and mind games – portrayed with rippling immediacy by director Paul Greengrass (United 93) – Muse and his crew escape in a lifeboat with Phillips as their hostage.

It’s here that Captain Phillips begins to echo the hopelessness of Job, a man who, through great trial, eventually came to realize that “I have no help in me.” After a paltry escape attempt has been thwarted and Phillips believes he's now beyond rescue, he succumbs to utter despair.

As a metaphor for the spiritual helplessness we must feel before we can accept God’s grace, Captain Phillips works quite well.

Take away the pirate particulars and this is a familiar place for many. As a metaphor for the spiritual helplessness we must feel before we can accept God’s grace, Captain Phillips works quite well. C.S. Lewis once acknowledged that “we are born helpless,” and yet we spend the rest of our lives trying to deny that fact, whether by arranging security, accumulating authority or exercising power in whatever puny fiefdom we’ve managed to establish. Captain Phillips depicts a man who has been shorn of all means of denial. He has been plundered – mentally, physically and presumably spiritually (though the film leaves faith out of the narrative).

“Apart from Me you can do nothing,” Jesus reminds us, as He offers, in Himself, ultimate hope. These two truths go hand in hand, as it’s hard to help a man who denies that he’s in need. This is the sort of hope Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and key figure in the Nazi resistance, described in his sermon, “Overcoming Fear.”

Learn to recognize and understand the hour of the storm, when you were perishing. This is the time when God is incredibly close to you, not far away. Right there, when everything else that keeps us safe is breaking and falling down, when one after another all the things our lives depend on are being taken away or destroyed, where we have to learn to give them up, all this is happening because God is coming near to us, because God wants to be our only sup­port and certainty. …God wants to show us that when you let everything go, when you lose all your own security and have to give it up, that is when you are totally free to receive God and be kept totally safe in God. So may we understand rightly the hours of affliction and tempta­tion, the hours in our lives when we are on the high seas! God is close to us then, not far away. Our God is on the cross.

Captain Phillips follows through on this notion in its final moments. (What follows doesn’t really count as a spoiler considering the movie is based on previously reported events, but fair warning anyway.) After being improbably rescued by a team of SEALs, Phillips is taken to a medical facility while in a state of shock. Hanks has never been better than in this raw scene, in which Phillips’ trauma and weakness are at the forefront. This is no Die Hard portrait of a man victorious and triumphant. Instead it captures the stunned gratitude of a man who has been saved.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure