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"Captain Phillips" is a well-made action-adventure story, but there's more to it than that..

Directed by Paul Greengrass, and starring Tom Hanks, with outstanding performances by a group of Somali actors, Captain Phillips can be viewed and enjoyed purely as a well-made, based-on-a-true-incident action/adventure flick. But beneath the surface, there’s more to think about. Fortunately, Greengrass has avoided the temptation to club us over the head with the subtext, allows the story to tell itself, and lets viewers draw their own conclusions.

Even a casual viewer can intuit that there’s more to the story than just the action. I left the movie theatre wrung out from the suspense—even though the real-life 2009 incident has been extensively covered by the press, and even though we know the outcome before the film begins. But I also left thinking about one particular theme that played out on several levels: Virtually everyone in the story was playing the role of pawn in someone else’s game. Phillips may have been the only hostage held at gunpoint, but he was not the only person in the story who was being manipulated by factors beyond his control. Here are my ideas about some of the other hostage scenarios that were at work during the Maersk Alabama incident.

Pawn hypothesis 1: Captain and crew

At one point, when it’s clear that they’re in danger of being boarded by Somali pirates, members of the crew angrily remind Captain Phillips that this is not what they signed on for. But Phillips—a company man whose duties include protecting the cargo—reminds them that they did, indeed sign on for this dangerous route. Perhaps [I'm speculating here] they were getting extra pay for the hazardous duty, and perhaps that extra pay was an incentive that made them take a risk. Or perhaps, as has been alleged [but not depicted in the movie], Captain Phllips, in an effort to be a better company man, steered the Maersk Alabama on a fuel-saving shortcut that took it too close to pirate-infested waters. Later, 16 of the 19 Alabama crew members sued Captain Phillips for damages, claiming that he ignored warnings of piracy and the admonition to keep ships at least 600 miles off the Somali coast. The Maersk Alabama was attacked 380 miles offshore. Ultimately, the workers were at the mercy of management and their own economic needs, and management itself may have been co-opted by a corporate culture of cost efficiency.

Pawn hypothesis 2:  Pirates

The Somali pirates, while doing a lot of improvising, were anything but independent players. Only one line of dialogue in the movie hints at the reason the pirates are so intent on taking the ship and holding it for insurance ransom. Captain Phillips says to them, “You’re not fisherman anymore, are you?” That sentence refers to the dire economic and environmental circumstances that have driven some former Somali fisherman into the dangerous world of hijacking cargo ships off the horn of Africa.

After a civil war in 1991 wiped out the last vestiges of an organized government in Somalia, the country’s coastline—a rich fishery—was left unguarded. Fishing fleets from all over the world swooped in, overfishing the area, depleting its underwater population, and making it virtually impossible for low-tech, Somali fishermen to compete. Some nations also used the unprotected Somali coastline as a convenient dumping ground for toxic waste–further degrading the natural habitat that supported local fishermen. Deprived of their livelihood, some of those fishermen turned to piracy. Others—some who had never been fishermen at all—saw an opportunity to make money by hijacking commercial cargo ships. And some, as is implied by the movie, became the bosses who motivated and controlled pirates like those who tried to hijack the Maersk Alabama.

Pawn hypothesis 3: Military

While the rescue of Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama appears to be a legitimate engagement for the U.S. Navy, it’s worth examining this incident as an example of the uses of U.S. military power—or the military power of any nation, for that matter. It’s important to remember that most wars have been fought over resources. So, when politicians talk about “protecting American interests,” they’re referring as much to American corporate interests as they are to America’s security interests. I’m not sure if, in my pawn theory, that makes the U.S. Navy a pawn for protecting the Maersk Alabama, or if it makes the Maersk Alabama and its crew the pawns in U.S. foreign policy. Either way, it’s worth pondering the role of the U.S. military.

Pawn hypothesis 4: Heroes

Finally, on a more macro level, I can’t help thinking that the whole portrayal of the Captain Phillips saga is part of the hero game played by American media. Contemporary mass media have created a “hero industrial complex,” in which central players in a variety of episodes are glorified and lauded as heroes. After the Maersk Alabama incident, Captain Phillips was seen as a hero who offered himself as a hostage to protect his crew. Even Phillips—the real one—has called that portrayal media hype. Captain Phillips, while showing that the captain was at gunpoint when he entered the lifeboat, still leaves the impression that the man was heroic. Casting Tom Hanks—an actor with a very high likeability quotient—certainly adds a halo effect. And while this particular movie did a reasonable job of sticking to the facts on record, it still glossed over some details and skipped most of the back story of the pirates, in the pursuit of a bankable movie. Yes, it’s just a movie–we can expect poetic license and suspension of disbelief. But too many hyped-up news reports and Hollywood movies–ostensibly based on fact–do history a disservice by distorting—or at least oversimplifying—reality as a way of creating a feel-good-America story and, of course, driving up ratings and selling tickets.

I enjoyed Captain Phillips as an adventure story, and so will many others, I’m sure. I only hope that people will take a few moments, after catching their breath, to think about the deeper issues that lie below decks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (16+ / 0-)

    Life's a dance you learn as you go; sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.

    by gloriasb on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 10:12:02 AM PDT

  •  I enjoyed the film very much, not a boring moment. (4+ / 0-)

    I agree with you that they could have given more of a back story to this film. I also would have like to see less action and more character development. And nothing was said in the film about the 30,000 dollars that the pirates took with them was unaccounted for, and as far as I know, still unaccounted for.

    Just another underemployed IT professional computer geek.

    by RhodeIslandAspie on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 10:22:45 AM PDT

  •  I thoroughly enjoyed it as well. (7+ / 0-)

    I note that they avoided giving Obama any credit for sending in the Seals. They only referred to the "White House," portraying it as desperate to get the thing resolved in any way possible.

    In fact, this was Obama's first victory as president. He's the one who sent in the Seals and told them to take the shots if they could.

    BTW, the guy who played the lead pirate is a Somali living in Milwaukee, I think, who had never acted before. His line, "I'm the captain now" was an ad lib, and shooting that scene was the first time he and Tom Hanks met.

    Pretty impressive. And the movie is really suspenseful all the way through, as you say!

    Enjoy the San Diego Zoo's panda cam! Now with new baby panda! And support Bat World Sanctuary

    by Fonsia on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 10:44:59 AM PDT

  •  I saw the movie and enjoyed it (2+ / 0-)

    a day after I read the news that the bodies were found with 19 bullet holes in them (not the 3 depicted or explained after the incident) and the $30,000 was missing (with an assumption that one of the rescue crew "appropriated" the money).

    And after finding out that Phillips was an SOB that no one on his crew liked.

    I reject your reality and substitute my own - Adam Savage

    by woolibaar on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 11:12:48 AM PDT

    •  Those three bullet holes... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      As the sharpshooters aimed, waiting for 3 clear shots, I was pretty sure that was an exaggerated portrayal. I had a hard time believing that they could get three perfect shots from a bobbing boat, aiming at another bobbing boat. The SEALS, I presume, are good..but is anybody THAT good? Presumably, this exaggeration is part of that hero-complex thing I was talking about.

      Life's a dance you learn as you go; sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.

      by gloriasb on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 11:54:58 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This movie... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    As your diary points out, really makes you think about things on many different levels and from various motivational perspectives, including the captain, crew, the pirates and the military.

    One thing I was curious about is whether container-ship captains, such as Phillips, are held accountable by the shipping line for fuel useage and the route chosen. Would that be part of their job evaluation? And, has anything changed regarding ship security and protection?

    The Republican brand: "Consequences, schmonsequences, as long as I'm rich"

    by D in Northern Virginia on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 11:22:28 AM PDT

    •  Good questions (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      D in Northern Virginia

      I wish I knew the answers. Perhaps a commenter can enlighten us?

      Life's a dance you learn as you go; sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.

      by gloriasb on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 11:51:25 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I used to work for an American flagship (5+ / 0-)

      (not Maersk).  

      Captains in normal waters are responsible for cargo, fuel, crew, everything.  One time one of our ships hit a fishing boat in the Gulf of the Farallons (outside SF). He telexed that a) he had hit a fishing boat, b) he had picked up the crew and c) he had lost no time.  One understands that he would have been blowing up money on fuel and crew pay if he had lost time. If he had lost time his job would have been on the line.

      In normal waters captains can not veer from their course by more than 2 degrees without permission from headquarters.  Storm avoidance to preserve cargo is the usual call.  In normal waters the ship must be going 22 knots by the time it reaches international waters, or have a good, no, ironclad reason for slowing down.

      In wartorn waters it is a whole different category of rules and regs.  Congress has legislated that all American relief cargo travel on American bottoms.  And the law is sometimes a smokescreen for other supply operations:   weapons to Bandar  Abbas during the Iran - Iraq war.

      I was amazed that there were 20 crew, other unionized countries will go with 8-12 on a run like that.  The crew get hazardous duty pay, as does the Captain (one can read this between the lines in the first scene in the movie).  

      There have been many negotiations about allowing cargo vessels to be armed - around the horn of Africa and through the straights of Malacca (Indonesia).  In the Straights the pirates usually went for the payroll, and left the ship to continue. The hostage ship is a later escalation, after the shipping companies started direct wire transfer of the payrolls to the crew.  The feeling is against openly allowing an arms escalation, only passive types like water cannons and sonic blasters are openly acknowledged.

      Displaying a picture of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and seven GOP colleagues sitting opposite empty chairs in a conference room, Maddow cracked, “Nobody learned anything from the Republican National Convention last year.”

      by sailmaker on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 12:43:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  What's wrong with direct deposit for payroll? (0+ / 0-)

        This is 2013!  

        "You never shoot a mockingbird, 'cause all they do is sing." ~~To Kill a Mockingbird

        by Paddy999 on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 03:46:29 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Nothing is wrong with direct deposit. (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Wee Mama, D in Northern Virginia

          Before direct deposit, shipping lines carried cash to pay the crew, a practice which attracted pirates.  That asset gone, the pirates looked for the next easiest asset, which turned out to be milking the insurance companies for hostage ships/crew.  Insurance companies don't like to pay up, but have paid many times.  

          The news is controlled so one almost never hears of a commercial ship going aground, sinking, or being held hostage. The censorship of the shipping news is done to maintain consumer confidence in the shipping companies, for the stockholder's good.

          Displaying a picture of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and seven GOP colleagues sitting opposite empty chairs in a conference room, Maddow cracked, “Nobody learned anything from the Republican National Convention last year.”

          by sailmaker on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 04:34:10 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Very helpful, thanks! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        D in Northern Virginia

        Learned a lot from your comments. Thank you!

        Life's a dance you learn as you go; sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.

        by gloriasb on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 04:27:02 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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