‘Captain Phillips’ and Powerlessness as a Survival Technique

Tom Hanks Captain Phillips
By  · Published on October 15th, 2013

A boat at sea is a pretty rich place to explore ideology.

Bear with me here. The sea, by assumption, bears no visible national borders, no unified language, no tactile culture for human beings. Yet humans travel the sea, conquer it, capitalize on it. Our use of the sea is in no way apolitical, yet an endless horizon subject to the laws of nature conveys something essential, a visage that suggests a false, elusive neutrality. The sea simultaneously erases and amplifies the distinctions we’ve made between ourselves on land.

Much has been already discussed about the ideological implications Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips. What to make of a popular piece of entertainment that is, at least in part, about global inequality? Are the systemic factors that motivate Somali piracy ignored? If not, might audiences still interpret the film in a simplistic hero v. villain binary de rigueur of Hollywood entertainment? Is the film, as Dana Stevens observes, “a tragedy about the ruinous consequences of global capitalism” or is it, as Andrew O’Hehir argues, “a disturbing celebration of American military power”?

Perhaps a film like Captain Phillips, by virtue of its setting and narrative, can be seen as a vessel of ideology that, at the same time, investigates the core processes by which our political identities and assumptions come into realization.

A solid chunk of Captain Phillips takes place inside an orange rescue raft that looks not unlike a child’s bath toy. These scenes are claustrophobic, their insularity and the resulting frustration heightened by Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s impatient camerawork. The entrance into this space comes rather suddenly in the film for people not already familiar with the event it’s based on. While it seems, at first, that the majority of Captain Phillips will take place on the Maersk Alabama, the bulk of the events ultimately occur within the confines of this small raft.

The movement of the Somali characters between particular spaces (a coastal village, the ocean, the cargo ship, the raft) betrays different relations to various sites of power. With our introduction to the four major hijackers on the beach of Africa’s horn, a parallel (but not an equivalence) is drawn in terms of establishing the primary characters’ relationships to power within everyday life: Tom Hanks’s Phillips, in a rather forced dialogue sequence, explains his subservience to bosses and uncertain future in a competitive and unreliable economy at the same time that young male Somalis are routinely and roundly pressured to set sea and put themselves in likely harm for a local warlord. While Greengrass makes nothing uncertain about the threat posed by piracy, the Somalis’ small scooner demonstrates yet another power differential. Hardly a struggle between two comparable forces, the Somalis approach the Maersk Alabama like David approaching Goliath.

By stark contrast, the image of Phillips stuck in a tiny raft with four armed men suggests another difference in relations of power; as long as Phillips remains in the raft, the Somalis possess relative, if essentially fleeting, domination over the situation. Regardless of real-life events, this particular placement of the protagonist makes sense in a Hollywood film, as the confined setting suggests the protagonist’s vulnerability and rachets up suspense with a shorthand incomparable to any of the film’s other locations.

More importantly, this setting demonstrates quite potently how frameworks inform interpretations of power. Four armed men in a raft with one hostage shows undeniable authority over the vulnerable hostage. But moving outside of that raft to see three Naval fleets surrounding it complicates this scenario significantly: it makes the raft itself seem vulnerable, and provides promise of a safe rescue for the hostage and certain doom for the hostage-takers (because nobody who sees this film thinks Phillips will die, though Greengrass admittedly constructs rather rich suspense otherwise).

The current debate over what viewers will take away from Captain Phillips centers on contestation over the size of the framework the film provides on its own. Are Muse’s (Barkhad Abdi) brief mentions of the foreign draining of Somalia’s resources that ultimately motivate piracy (a result of the systems of economic exchange across the ocean that Phillips contributes to) enough to illustrate an event like this as a result of systemic problems? As Ta-Nehisi Coates said in a completely different – but, I think, relevant – context about understanding acts of violence that result from long-term processes of subjugation, exploitation, and economic disparity, “there’s nothing inconsistent about trying to understand the broad societal forces, and still holding people responsible for individual action.”

If Captain Phillips empties the situation it depicts of any meaning outside the culpability of the immediate individuals at hand, then it really is a film of little consequence outside its use of a real-life situation for entertainment purposes, banking off of the received nationalism that informs formulaic notions of heroism and exceptionalism. In other words, Captain Phillips risks saying nothing in service of the Hollywood thriller.

But Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray seem to make notable efforts in complicating Hollywood’s necessity for placing a one-dimensional bad guy opposite an embodiment-of-heroism good guy. This isn’t a David and Goliath narrative in reverse: it’s about people who work for larger entities that see themselves somewhere on the David/Goliath spectrum. Similarly to the juxtaposition in the opening two scenes, the film makes several other parallels between the pirates and the crew of the Maersk Alabama. The youngest pirate, Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) complains that this is not what he signed up for while nursing a foot full of broken glass, perhaps only a half hour after a union crew member on Philips’s ship voiced nearly the exact same complaint when a potential pirate attack first seemed likely.

At another moment in the film, both Phillips and Muse acknowledge that they each have bosses they work under. These characters are framed as subjects to the larger systems they each contribute to, not agents moving through life without constraints imposed by forces outside themselves. It’s no wonder that Muse refers to the hijacking as a game (and indeed, on the Alabama Greengrass occasionally stages the suspense as such), for this is indeed a high-stakes game of global capital within which these characters have crossed paths. It is simultaneously a game they’ve consented to and a game in which they had relatively little choice.

But Captain Phillips is also careful to illustrate the contrasting axes of power Phillips and Muse have access to as citizens of different nations, even as these characters encounter similar human experiences. In O’Hehir’s review of Captain Phillips, the critic refers to the film as “a celebration of a huge and expensive machine that crushes disorder.” This aspect of the film is apparent no more starkly than in the final showdown between Navy SEALs and Somali pirates, in which the naval vessels seem as if they’re about to engulf an orange dingy sloshing in the water. But we don’t need to draw an immediate equivalence between representation and celebration in the abundantly clear power asymmetry conveyed within this vision of raw military force.

The ideological inflection of the mammoth mismatch in proportion is neatly summarized by Hanks’s Phillips when he declares, “They can’t let you win. They would rather sink this ship than let me reach Somalia,” or something to that effect; his choice of can’t in place of won’t suggests unconscionability. To retrofit what I stated about Zero Dark Thirty (a superior film, but one that has drawn appropriate comparisons) in January, Captain Phillips is “a procedural in the sense that it lays bare, in vast detail…the many machinations involved in the project of American ideology as manifested through military action.” Yet Captain Phillips examines ideology not only as a process observable within its most powerful institution, but also as a phenomenon evident in different characters’ perspectives on the implications of any given situation. It’s important that, while Hanks’s Phillips understands the American military, he doesn’t understand that pirates like Muse don’t really have any other options.

Sure, audiences may cheer as a shower of blood meets Hanks’s face at the end of his confinement, but Captain Phillips remains a film that, at the very least, is attempting to have its critique and eat it too: to deliver a conventional thriller with Hollywood’s simplified good guy/bad guy formula seemingly in tow (no pun intended), and at the same time laying bare the frameworks that engender inevitably limited perspectives about vast complexes of inequality realized through globalized systems.

But, of course, as we have a global economy, we also have a global cinema. And it’s fortuitous that Captain Phillips was released on the heels of the US release of Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking. A Hijacking does not portray Somali piracy as a conflict of competing national interests warranting military action, but as an economic exchange – the necessary breakage of a global market. The film centers on negotiations between the CEO of a shipping company and the pirates, negotiations that end up lasting for months on end. The suspense in A Hijacking lies in waiting in the long term, not the short. The film’s major on-deck protagonist is a cook (Johan Philip Asbaek) who is depicted not as a movie star hero, but as someone who must accept and endure powerlessness as a means of survival. Tragically, the only major act of violence shown in the film is an event that happens almost as an afterthought, and it’s an act of injustice that is never met with the narrative catharsis of seeing villains violently vanquished. A film that sees corporations, not nations, as sites where power is delineated, A Hijacking “resolves” its situation not through through military force, but as a business transaction executed within a stale boardroom.

One essential thing to remember about cinematic depictions of systemic complex global problems – no matter what country the film emerged from, whether or not the film is a true story, whether such problems are addressed in the film at all, or whether or not the film is any good – is that a framework is ultimately selected which imbues the film with a certain perspective. And like staring through the tiny window of a small raft in an open sea, this framework renders some things visible and others very, very difficult to see.