Captain Phillips: A Great Movie, for a Different Course

I saw the movie Captain Phillips a few days ago, curious about whether it would be appropriate for my narrative and management course. It’s a great movie, telling a true story of survival with drama and suspense.

The movie portrays each of three interacting organizations – the crew of the container ship Maersk Alabama, the band of Somali pirates, and the US Navy ships and Seals deployed to rescue the container ship and its captain – sympathetically. The crew members do everything they can to keep the pirates from boarding and, when the pirates have boarded and seized Captain Phillips, bravely continue with passive resistance and sabotage. We come to understand the pressure upon the pirates to satisfy the extortionate demands of their warlords that prevent an easy solution to the dilemma. The US Navy commanders and crew do everything possible to seek a negotiated, non-violent solution, resorting to violence only when there was no other alternative.

The movie was very much a vehicle for Tom Hanks’s vivid portrayal of a man under extreme duress for most of its duration and in a state of shock at the end. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott recent referred to Hanks’s “extraordinary emotional display in the final scenes.” He can certainly expect at least an Academy Award nomination.

But does all this make for an appropriate movie for a narrative and management course? Even though the movie has considerable organizational content, my answer turns on the question of genre. In his article comparing Captain Phillips to two recent releases – All is Lost and Gravity – Scott referred to these three movies as instances of “individual stories of adversity and the struggle to survive in limited space.” I have another rubric for this genre, namely movies of “people (usually men) in boxes.” Other particularly distinguished exemplars of this genre include Apollo 13 (1995) and the tale of a German U-boat crew das Boot (1985). Much of the action in this genre focuses on technical mastery, figuring out what modifications or adaptations are necessary in order to enable the machine, and the people in it, to survive in a hostile environment. Granted there may be an interpersonal or organizational process involved in determining the modifications, but the interaction with technology is still at the heart of these movies. And the suspense that is a necessary part of the genre turns on whether the modified technology will work. Captain Phillips fits this genre as well because it involves the crew using the ship’s technology to thwart the pirates and the Navy using both tracking and weapons technologies to free the ship and its crew.

In contrast, the genre of film I often use in the narrative and management course is that of “people (usually men) in a room making decisions.” Three exemplars would be Twelve Angry Men (a jury), Thirteen Days (an interdepartmental advisory committee to the president), and Lincoln (a legislative body, the US House of Representatives). These movies involve a great deal of talk intended to persuade, rather than interaction with technology. This is simply a different genre. Further, I expect that the students in my courses are more likely to be engaged in their working careers making decisions in rooms than managing technology in boxes.

This is not to say that managing technology raises no interpersonal issues – indeed, it does. I could imagine developing a course on narratives about “people in boxes” based on movies such as Captain Phillips, Apollo 13, and das Boot. I think the best place to teach it would be in an engineering faculty or military academy. The interpersonal dimension would be extremely valuable to engineering and military students, who tend to think linearly and hierarchically. But that context is very different from that of a management faculty. Captain Phillips is an instructive, suspenseful, and entertaining movie, unfortunately not for the course I teach now.


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