By Jacob Mertens.
A few months ago I was listening to NPR’s This American Life podcast, and I caught an episode that was devoted entirely to a hostage situation in Egypt’s Sinai desert. The story involved journalist Meron Estefanos stumbling onto a den of hostages all seeking rescue, unable to receive any help save from her. The men and women were savaged by impoverished malcontents who took their prisoners at random, hoping that someone would miss one of them enough to pay a ransom (assuming they had the means to do so). The report shed light on the extremes poverty can take, how violence and cruelty can bloom in the unseen corners of the world. Still, there was a refreshing lack of sanctimony with the telling, no need to wag a finger at the terrible men responsible or to grandstand. Estefanos recounted her story on the station, deliberate and concise, reserving her passion for sympathy. In short, I thought it an excellent and illuminating piece of nonfiction storytelling.
So why am I discussing a podcast at the beginning of a review for Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips? Simple, because it helps to demonstrate what this film does wrong. It would be a mistake to deride Captain Phillips from a functional standpoint; Greengrass has proven himself competent with a style worn well through two Bourne films: handheld camera, fast edits, close framing. The effect is disorientating yet visceral, and it works here. Instead, the trouble stems from a disturbing ideology that cannot help but infringe on this true-life narrative, one of nationalistic pride.
The film begins with an American cargo ship navigating the Indian Ocean alone, separated from a pack of freighters, risking open waters in pirate territory for the sole reason of economic haste. After all, the quicker the ship can traverse the ocean and unload, the quicker it can get back out on the waters with another haul. The greed of this act is glossed over in Captain Phillips, becoming a conspicuous omission as the story develops. Inevitably, the ship is overrun with Somali pirates and a conflict between blue-collar crew and gun-wielding interlopers unfolds. The contest of wills never manifests in a meaningful way though, because the audience is not meant to identify with the pirates or their plight.
Despite some undeniable camera presence, particularly regarding pirate captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the Somalians are, for a large part of the film, shown as weak, ill-tempered, and foolish. Perhaps this would be less of an offense if they were left alone as shallow characters with ambiguous motivations; you could at least argue bad writing over a need to affirm American might and morality above those of less fortunate origins. Instead, the film tries to build the criminals up, Muse more so than anyone, as cagey and uncommonly bright. When Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) attempts to convince Muse that all the wealth in the ship lies solely in the vault, the man does not fall for the deceit. When Phillips tries to dissuade Muse from searching the engine room—the ship’s crew is in hiding there—Muse sniffs out the ruse immediately. However, the pirate captain’s successes in the film are short lived and he is soon brought down as an incompetent man whose dream to live an American life (a predictable yet jarring catalyst for his crimes) must be squashed.
Following tense exchanges between the disparate captains, the pirate takeover soon devolves into a hostage situation. Muse’s men are ambushed by Captain Phillips and his crew, Muse himself is mugged in the dark engine room and taken at knife point, and the harrowed outlaws narrowly escape onto the ship’s lifeboat with their lives, taking Phillips along as a prisoner consolation prize. Reduced to wounded animals more than wily captors, the pirates race to Somalia’s borders, but do not glimpse the shoreline before the US Navy intercedes. As negotiations begin, the pirates bicker amongst themselves, they pace the floors of the small boat in a state of shock, and they never clue in on duplicities played by Captain Phillips and the navy. For instance, they do not notice or care when Phillips informs the Navy where he is located in the lifeboat, surely in case the boat is breached, nor do they force him to sit elsewhere.
At some point during this downward spiral, Muse waxes nostalgic about how he has always longed to see America. When the negotiator attempts to speak to Muse in his native language, he purposefully maintains a conversation in English. And in retrospect, the man has spent much of the film outwardly hostile to his own people, maintaining an air of superiority, while giving Captain Phillips a respect that has not been earned. Given his preferences, and the way he stands out from his own as a (mostly) clear voice of strength and reason, it is not much of a stretch to see these qualities as an appropriation of the country he idolizes. Even so, Muse is not American, he is not even white, and so the film cannot allow his mimicry to come off as anything but a shallow imitation.
It should be said that I am not one who typically tries to read into politics with a narrative, but for Captain Phillips a political—and social, and cultural—reading forces itself. With these Somalians, I see the gross myth of a third world that unconsciously fetishizes America. They idolize the country’s success (read also: greed) but are unable to emulate these ideals without risking moral perversion—in this case, piracy. In their hands, the American dream becomes something ugly, and thus the film willfully ignores that this fabled dream was always a little unsightly to begin with. After all, there is both beauty and terrible abuse that follows an individualistic pursuit of happiness and wealth; to ignore this is to ignore the lessons of recent history.
Some may argue that the filmmakers harness an objective truth, that in many parts of the world American culture still inspires envy and admiration. I won’t argue this point, but I will admit the notion seems more dated with every year that passes. In light of the faded American empire, a more dispassionate telling is needed here. I cannot stomach watching emaciated Somalians shuffle across a lifeboat, unnerved and waiting for their doom, while their captain praises the land of their would-be assassins. I cannot stand to see how their piteous downfall is given political intonations, an avowal of American principles that tragically cannot translate to another culture with its integrity intact. Captain Phillips seems to believe itself a cautionary tale, a crime begets collapse storyline that audiences have seen a hundred times now. But within that story, there is an inherent responsibility which the filmmakers ignore. Namely, when you have two cultures at war in a film, regardless of who is in the right and who is in the wrong, there is a need for sensitivity in their respective portrayals. Instead, we see the Somalians crumble into a pathetic heap, we see how their pursuers refuse to relent, and a lot of Americans get to leave the theater feeling smug for some unknown reason.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.