NEW YORK – Paul Greengrass is a gifted director who specializes in historical reenactments, a once marginal genre that in recent years hits the sweet spot, earning critical plaudits as well as bringing in bank (Greengrass’ “United 93,” Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Downfall,” about Hitler’s final days in his bunker). Greengrass’ latest entry in this field is “Captain Phillips,” a retelling of the 2009 hijacking of a container ship by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks stars in the title role.
Watching this film left me with an uneasy feeling, like I’d digested a delicious meal devoid of nutrition. It was a fun drama. But I didn’t learn anything. Why not?
This is solid Hollywood filmmaking. Tight scripting, sharp editing and unpretentious cinematography deliver a story that keeps you in your seat long after you began having to pee. Hanks delivers one of his finest performances, driving a stake into his reputation as an always-playing-himself actor; Barkhad Abdi is a sensational revelation as pirate leader Abduwali Muse.
But what does this film mean? What message does Greengrass convey to his audience?
In random order, here are the takeaways: leadership is tough. Bravery exacts a high cost. In an interconnected world — we watch Phillips email his wife after the pirates’ first attempt to board the Maersk Alabama — it’s nevertheless possible to be alone, isolated and vulnerable. Intermodal transport, an industry in which vast ships carrying thousands of tons of goods are piloted by an unarmed skeleton crew, is surreal. If nothing else, “Captain Phillips” is worth watching because it opens a window into the lonely lives of the men and women responsible for keeping our store shelves stocked.
Pull out of the multiplex parking lot, however, and you quickly realize the real revelation: “Phillips” is pro-government propaganda.
Greengrass has created the most frightening kind of propaganda — so effective that for most people it will become the definitive historical account of an event. Unlike the hilariously shrill propaganda flicks of the past, from “Triumph of the Will” to Cold War-era artifacts like “Rambo” and “Red Dawn,” the new breed pretends not to editorialize. Affecting a quiet, Zoloft-inflected tone and economical, apparently straightforward script-writing, this movie plays it close to the vest, coming as deadly fair and serious. Which makes it easy to miss what is left out.
This new “cinema non-verite” uses high art to sanitize history in order to elevate the imperialist, militarist geopolitical agenda of the U.S. government in its post-9/11 war on terror.
Kathryn Bigelow never scratches the surface of Osama bin Laden’s motivations in “Zero Dark Thirty.” He’s just a target, a cipher in a beard, so we don’t care when he dies. Her film is thrilling yet vacuous.
It is far from settled history that United Flight 93 was brought down by the passenger revolt — the 9/11 Commission Report leaves open the possibility that it was shot down. But that would prompt uncomfortable questions. Greengrass’ film, which unquestioningly accepts the “let’s roll” scenario, all but sets it in stone for posterity.
Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is devoid of political context, especially the historical basis for the Iranian revolutionaries’ contempt for the United States. Best not to mention the coup, the shah, corruption or torture.
American movies are about choices. Will the protagonist choose right or wrong (and which is which)? In “Captain Phillips,” however, the ethical quandaries rest not on Hanks’ character, who handles his ordeal as courageously and competently as you could expect, but on Abdi’s shoulders. It’s more than a little odd.
“We are just fisherman,” Abdi explains after seizing control of the vessel. Fortunes reverse after crewmen hidden in the engine room capture him and trade him for their captain, who offers them $30,000 in cash and a lifeboat to leave the ship. Disgusted that the Somalis won’t settle for less than “millions” and physically brutalized, Hanks spits “you are not a fisherman!” at Abdi an hour later into the movie.
It’s a puzzling narrative choice. Not only is Abdi’s a supporting role, we don’t see much deliberation. Muse is in it for the big bucks all along. So are his colleagues.
Passing up the obvious chance to use this mother of all culture clashes as a means to discuss race and class, Greengrass has nevertheless succumbed to the hoary colonial instinct to ask, almost out loud, why $30,000 isn’t enough to sate a gang of starvation-thin guys from one of the world’s poorest countries. The closest we get to an answer is a tossed-off aside by Abdi that the fish “left” Somali waters.
The background, mentioned only obliquely in this movie about Somali piracy, is that Somalia’s fishing industry had been decimated. After Somalia collapsed into the sectarian civil conflict in the early 1990s, the absence of a strong central government — coupled with the indifference of the international community — opened a vacuum for opportunists. Foreign trawlers and other vessels dump industrial waste, toxins and even nuclear waste — including uranium — off the Somali coast. Foreign fishing ships use drift nets to steal the fish that survive.
Time magazine reported in 2009 that Somalis turned to piracy after Western ships made it impossible to fish: “A United Nations report in 2006 said that, in the absence of the country’s at one time serviceable coast guard, Somali waters have become the site of an international ‘free for all,’ with fishing fleets from around the world illegally plundering Somali stocks and freezing out the country’s own rudimentarily-equipped fishermen. According to another U.N. report, an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from the country’s coastline each year.”
Desperate Somali fishermen formed vigilante flotillas to go after foreign fishing vessels. Some robbed the poachers at gunpoint. This turned out to be much more lucrative than fishing. Piracy became a $50 million a year industry.
If Abduwali Muse isn’t really a fisherman, he didn’t have that option to begin with.
Postscript: Somalis who still try to fish are harassed, questioned and detained by American warships assigned to the Horn of Africa to deter pirates. (In “Captain Phillips,” this U.S. Navy practice is whitewashed.)
Two or three additional lines of dialogue would have enlightened American movie audiences about the complexity of the piracy issue. Exposing the antagonists’ motivations would have made “Captain Phillips” a smarter movie, a tragedy in which opposing forces, neither side evil, are forced into a clash in which at least one side must die. Greengrass gives us all the moral nuance of a cowboy versus Indian movie.
“Capitain Phillips” is the triumph of suburban schlubs and high-tech military hardware over hollow-eyed black men in rags, horribly unfamiliar with basic oral hygiene.
By the way, if some of the Maersk Alabama’s crewmen are to be believed, Phillips was a lousy captain who imperiled them by skirting too close to the Somali coast. Deborah Waters, an attorney representing 11 crewmen who are suing Maersk, said: “He told them he wouldn’t let pirates scare him or force him to sail away from the coast.”
Maybe, maybe not. Only those who were there know for sure.
Making films is also about choice.
When you make a film based on history, it’s impossible to include every detail. Nor should you try.
Still basic background facts are crucial to understanding the event being depicted. Omitting or spinning issues (why Somalis resorted to piracy) strips them of context. Deploying a matter-of-fact tone makes these cinematic lies (because the Somalis are poor and greedy) credible.
It is unforgivable to promote America’s we’re-the-good-guys party line at the expense of the victims of the system. (Muse, politically voiceless in this film, is serving 33 years in a U.S. federal prison.) Dressing up a perversion of truth in pretty lighting, and stuffing tainted dialogue into the mouths of great actors, results in an affront to art as well as history.
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist, columnist and writer. His latest book, to be published in August 2014, “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Visit his website at www.rall.com. © 2013, Ted Rall