Inspired by the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, the movie portrays the very real plight of both Somali fishermen-turned-pirates and cargo ships and their unarmed crew that transport resources around the Horn of South Africa. Suspenseful and poignant, Captain Phillips is worth watching. But I am not a movie critic and sharing a review is not the reason for my writing about this today. The sole reason is to draw attention to the final five minutes of the movie and the spontaneous performance that so accurately portrays the trauma response.
After a harrowing ordeal as a victim of piracy and kidnapping by a clan of Somali khat-eating fishermen/pirates, Phillips (Hanks) is rescued by the US Navy. Covered in his captors' blood, he is freed from the lifeboat and taken aboard the USS Brainbridge--a nearby destroyer that has responded to the hijacking alert. Escorted to the ship's infirmary by medical staff, Phillips is in shock, unable to talk, and begins shivering By the time they arrive, he is shaking uncontrollably; he is mumbling, asking about his family, disoriented, scared, and detached from life all around him. Dissociation--a predictable biological and psychological response to overwhelming events. The female attending to Phillips does her job well and stays with it--looking at him kindly, touching him, healing, examining him for injuries, respectfully asking him questions to engage him: bringing him back from the trauma-dead.
Apparently, the final five minutes of shooting were completely unplanned. "It's a moment like I've never had making films," said Hanks at a New York Film Festival post-screening Q&A. "It's not on the page at all."
"We shot a scene upstairs which was a similar scene, because we felt there had to be a cathartic moment where you understood what the experience had meant," said Greengrass. "But we could tell it wasn't perfect."
Reviewing the scene and recognizing that in real life medical treatment does not occur on the upper decks of the ship, Greengrass and the actors all go down into the bowels of the ship to where the actual infirmary is located. "Should we give it a try?" Greengrass asks. And that is where the magic happens.
Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast (online) writes, "That's what there is in that scene--the truth of vulnerability, shock, confusion, and all the things you'd expect of an experience like that."
Knowing personally and professionally the reality of trauma and shock, my belly quivered as I cried the entire final five minutes. When the attendant consoled Phillips and kept repeating, "Captain, you're safe now," I balled, and I realized just how deeply trauma survivors need that experience and feeling of safety. It's like playing a favorite song over and over again: The song of of safe sanctuary after the storm: needing not only to be safe, but to feel safe psychologically.
Captain, you're safe now. For as long as it takes and as long as you need, keep saying to yourself, "Captain, you're safe now."