Captain Phillips and the Subhuman Pirates
I got some free tickets this week to see Captain Phillips at the cinema. “The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years”, is how it is sold. Tom Hanks plays the captain of the title, and we are promised, “simultaneously a pulse-pounding thriller, and a complex portrait of the myriad effects of globalization”. What we get is a boring film full of American end-of-empire angst with a not very subtle portrait of Somalis as entirely subhuman.
It wasn’t that I expected it to be great, it just turned out to be even worse than I had imagined. You wouldn’t have thought it given the reviews. Even an intelligent critic like Mark Kermode in the Guardian writes optimistically (picking up on the language of the film’s official blurb quoted above) “For all its action aesthetics and nail-biting, gut-wrenching tension, this is on some level a film about globalisation, about what happens when the paths of the very poor and the very rich intersect in the crossfire of world economics.” Indeed, on ‘some level’ it is, but it is only about that on the level that the very rich in the world wish their people to view the very poor.
It starts with Tom Hanks at home, packing his bag while Paul Greengrass’s ‘trademark’ shaky camera gives us a poignant close up of Hanks’s hand lingering over the family portrait he is going to take with him on his dangerous voyage. We will empathise with this good family guy.
As he rides the freeway to the airport with his wife, we straight away get the anxiety in the American psyche that will become a feature of the whole film: “I just don’t know anymore, it’s going to be so hard for our kids now. In my day you just got your head down and you could become a ship’s captain. Now there’s 50 people for a job. I’m not sure our son is taking school serious enough.” That kind of thing. So we leave Hanks worrying about the fading American dream and move to the heart of modernday darkness and the visualised nightmare of his nation’s insecurity.
Somalia. Khat chewing. Skinny youths with AK 47s. The camera is even shakier and grainier than before. A car arrives, people run. People shout (there’s lots of shouting in Somalia). A boy runs into a room and wakes up an unidentified sleeping man. The invisible people in the car shout and fire rifles in the air. “We want a boat.”
“We got you one last week,” says a bearded fisherman-looking bloke.
“That was last week. I want another one.” Car drives off. Automatic weapons. Shouting. Suddenly, the people who had been so terrorised by these motiveless and shadowy milita and begging not to have to be pirates anymore are all competing desperately to be picked for the pirate crew. They offer bribes – in the form of khat of course (Somalis are all desperate drug addicts) – to be chosen: “This is a good khat. It is the best stuff. Let me come on the boat.”
The men form a circle and shout at each other a lot. The camera moves around wildly. The man with a beard seems to have a less wild, more intelligent look to him. He is about Hanks’s age and appears to be set up as a counterpoint to him. There is a man picked for being big and strong. We seem sure that he will have a part to play later. And so they set off in two boats.
In a normal, standard Hollywood film here you would have had a counterpoint. A central Somali character with a back story comparable to Captain Phillips’s. Not here. The middle aged bearded pirate captain disappears from the story when his boat turns around mid-pursuit, scared off by Phillips’s ploy of radioing on a channel that he knows the pirates will pick up (they all understand English) as if speaking to a waiting crew of US fighter pilots. Instead, it is the man who was sleeping in the room earlier who emerges as the central character and apart from the fact that he sleeps on the floor of his home and has a little brother / nephew / cousin, there is no back story. Despite the $50 million budget and a century of Hollywood, none of the Somali characters are given consistent motive or character. Maybe we are to believe that it’s because they’re all off their faces on khat. In which case, however you would expect that the director would shoot the film with the subjectivity of the drug-taker so that we know what’s it like to be wrapped around the nonsensical impulses of that stimulant. But we have no subjectivity. Just a bunch of incomprehensible drug addicts. The sub-human Somalis are not allowed a perspective. The pirate crew, who have been selected for what was at first a punishment under threat of their lives and is now a great privilege, feel no solidarity, no camaraderie, no sense of their united purpose, no indication that they belong to a religion. Instead every scene they feature in, is done over the roaring sound of outboard motors and endless shouting – trading insults, accusing each other of cowardice or incompetence.
As for the “complex portrait of the myriad effects of globalization”, we hear nothing of the poisoning of waters by multinationals and loss of fishing rights that forced Somali fishermen to turn to piracy. There is no backstory of how the United Islamic Courts emerged from the years of chaos post the fall of Said Barre in 1991, at first, according to Medhane Tadesse, as “a genuine political process in which the Somali business class entered into a pact with the political elite (in this case the Islamists), forging the first political contract in southern Somalia. It could therefore be argued that it was a locally owned, credible, legitimate and substantial political process.” and then, as the CIA tried to destroy it through its proxy Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism (ARPCT), providing an opening for ‘extremist elements’ intent on the creation of an Islamic Emirate to enter the field and counter the counter-terrorists. There are no flashbacks to the resultant three and a half month bloody civil war around Mogadishu. There is nothing about how the UIC, having defeated ARPCT and established itself as the first proper government in Somalia for a decade, was then, in December 2006, overthrown by Ethiopia, acting again as a proxy for the US, who raised the Ethiopian flag provocatively over the embassy in Mogadishu. But perhaps globalisation is a bit too complex for a film. So let’s instead, deal with crazed militants acting under orders from shadowy, motiveless militia-warlords.
I have to be honest here, I did not stay to the end. By three quarters of the way through, I was sick of it. If it is interesting, it is not as a portrayal of the situation in Somalia, or of globalisation, but as a vision of the American psyche in the second decade of the 21st century. Compare it with Under Siege, another film about terrorists who take over a boat, but a film made in 1992 at the height of American confidence. Steven Seagal is an ex-navy seal who has lost his job and is now a chef with a bad temper, bullied and provoked by an incompetent superior, on board a battleship carrying nuclear warheads. An ex-CIA-turned-rogue-mercenary launches a supremely well-planned hijacking and only Seagal (who is locked in a freezer after a fight with his boss) can save us. Which of course, once he gets out of the freezer, he does, narrowly averting a nuclear disaster through a series of macho baddie killing. Like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, we get a maverick who has been mistreated by the establishment saving that same corrupt establishment against sophisticated (generally English, German or South African) and frighteningly well-armed terrorists.
Post 9-11 and post-economic collapse, after disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have as our hero a fat, bearded middle aged man with bad skin who had once danced as a kid in adult body on a giant piano in a toyshop. He is trying to be rational and reasonable: “Hey, there’s $30,000 in the safe, why don’t you guys take that and we’ll call it a day?” But the enemy, bare-foot, half-starved, badly equipped and few in number is not a rational agent.
“We want TVs. We want Mercedes. What are you carrying on this ship, Irish?” Muse, who has now emerged as the leader of the four remaining terrorists not scared off by Hanks’s earlier decoy, asks. (Phillips, when pressed, has declared that he is, “American. Irish American” and hence the tribal nickname given him by the tribal warrior.) The ship is actually carrying water and food aid to Kenya (what else would Maersk, whose branding is prominent throughout, be carrying in this complex globalised world?), but Muse is not put off at all by this fact, he thinks Irish is lying.
And so the Americans must defeat them in the only way they know how – deception. “I don’t know where the crew are, let’s search the boat together.” “If you want to go to the engine room you’re going to need some water. Its darned hot down there.” The Somalis are experienced pirates, know the waters, can understand English, can use radars but have no idea about container boats, so despite their mistrust about the cargo, they are easily fooled.
There’s even a bit, where the ship’s crew, hiding bravely in the aforementioned engine room, put down cut glass by the door so that the bare-footed terrorist steps on it. How conscious is the reference to Die Hard, where Bruce Willis struggles on manfully while shards of machine-gun-bullet-smashed window pane stick into his foot? In any case, the weedy Somali, who is no longer the fearless pirate, boarding the huge American container ship travelling at full speed through open waters, can only whinge and whine about the pain.
I have to be honest, here. I could not stay to the end. I was thoroughly sick of it by the time the sailors had captured and then generously released their pirate captain, given him cash and a lifeboat and let him sail away back to his country. So I missed the bit, where the pirates treacherously betray Phillips’s compassion and kidnap him. I missed the time together in the lifeboat and the daring rescue of helicopters and navy and etc. Perhaps it is here that the humanity of the Somalis emerges. I had seen enough to seriously doubt it. The political propaganda is so nauseatingly all-encompassing that the film even finds time to have a dig at trade unions. During a captain’s briefing, in a tense respite while they have temporarily shaken off their pirate pursuers, one man speaks up, “I’ve been a union man all my working life and I’m not paid enough to take these kind of risks.” Captain America puts him securely in his place. After all, did he not have a choice in this fifty people for one job world? Could he not have worked somewhere else that didn’t risk hijacking? Predictably, the only criticism of the establishment is that they don’t take seriously enough the threat of terrorism (if only they would be more vigilent!). When Hanks radios through for help, no one answers the phone in the American navy and he has to talk to the British instead who tell him, ‘it’s probably just fisherman’. Hollywood can make a feature film about piracy off the Horn of Africa while the US military aren’t even aware of it enough to answer the phones!
So go and see it if you want to keep a check on the state of American propaganda and its anxious self-image. There’s a crazy world out there full of people who shout a lot, chew foreign drugs and hate us but want to be like us and to have what we have. And you know what? When we try and be reasonable with them, and give them what they ask for, they still aren’t satisfied. There’s no plain dealing with these guys: they may be smaller, poorer, weaker and stupider but their sheer recklessness is dangerous and we must do all we can in the field of misinformation to keep them away from our decreasing share of luxuries.
But it’s not for kids. Be confident you are resistant enough to the insidious effects of 50 million dollars’ worth of racism. On the message boards of IMDB you see the film’s effects on those who watch it uncritically, “Anyone else agree the Somali guy who went to prison got a good deal? I know it might not be politically correct to say it but at least he gets 3 square meals a day and a color TV. What was his alternative in Somalia? Eking out a desperate living while terrorized by warlords and have a life expectancy of 40 (if he’s lucky)?”
The “alternative in Somalia” has been presented to him (“JamesBond0000”) in such a way that the only sensible way to deal with its savage human products is, as another message board user remarks of the three pirates who are not lucky enough to get the ‘good deal’ of prison, “bullets in the head ad no ne questioned it [sic].”