It’s been a good week for moral complexity. After finishing “Kind of Kin”, the book I wrote about in my previous post, our family finally watched “Captain Phillips” on one of our snow days. I was truly impressed with the way the movie illustrated the nuances in a situation that could have easily been portrayed as clear good versus evil story.
The movie is based on a true incident that I remember following in the news: in April 2009, Somali pirates boarded an American container ship 240 miles off the coast of Somalia. The pirates commandeered the ship and demanded a ransom. Eventually they left the ship in a lifeboat, but they took the captain, Richard Phillips, with them. The U.S. Navy stepped in and after a standoff that lasted 5 days, snipers shot three of the pirates and arrested one other. Captain Phillips was freed unharmed.
Captain Philips is played by Tom Hanks, an actor whose face and manner communicates a sense of calm and common decency. From the very first scene of the movie, Philips is portrayed as a likeable, knowledgeable leader. He’s a Good Guy from the start to the end of this movie.
So the moral complexity comes from how the Somali pirates are portrayed. This is also where the movie could have failed. The Somalis could have been greedy, drug-crazed Bad Guys who value money more than human life. Or, they could have been portrayed as victims whose lives have been directed by forces beyond their control but whose hearts remain pure gold.
But the movie does not err in either direction. Instead of making the pirates good or bad, the movie makes them human, which is to say, complex. They come from a small, crowded village in a dusty town near the coast. A group of men arrive in jeeps and round up some young men from the village, demanding that they go out to sea in search of ships to hijack. The men are not unwilling. In fact, a number of them vie for a few spots on the pirate crew. But clearly, they are working for someone else who is taking advantage of their desperation.
Because we know their backstory, we can understand why they are doing what they are doing. But it is still clear that their actions are wrong—their use of violence to achieve their ends snowballs and results, not surprisingly, in their own violent deaths.
I love the ways that movies can make us feel connected to people whose lives are very different from our own. We gain moral insight by “walking a mile in another person’s shoes”, understanding how their past experiences have led them to the present moment. But in my experience, we often want to exonerate the people with whom we empathize.
Years ago, when I was a ministry intern working in a prison chaplaincy program, I met every few weeks in a supervision group with other interns who were doing similar work. At first, all of us were scared of the prisoners we were meeting. Then, we all began to make connections with particular prisoners. After a couple of months of work, we had a meeting where all the interns were talking about the prisoners they had gotten to know well. To my surprise, all of “our” prisoners had been falsely accused and were serving time for things they hadn’t done. Then it dawned on me. That’s the story we had allowed ourselves to believe. We couldn’t believe that the people we connected with, the people who we identified with, were also people who had done bad things.
Movies that invite us to make a compassionate connection with another person who is clearly doing a bad thing expand our moral abilities. I highly recommend the exercise.