When I first saw the trailer for this film, I confess I bristled a bit. Despite the fact it’s based on a true story, making it slightly more difficult to accuse it of being an unfair portrayal (not completely, but slightly), my first thought as the trailer got into full swing was, “America’s sweetheart attacked by evil, evil black men!” Though that’s obviously true on one level — the real Captain Phillips and his crew were, in fact, attacked by a group of black Somali pirates — it’s waaaay more complicated than that, and the trailer didn’t inspire much confidence in me that the filmmakers were on it.
As the film came and went from theaters, I kept reading extremely positive reviews of it — both of the acting and of the “compassionate” take on the issues surrounding the story. So, I finally sat down and watched the thing last weekend. Unfortunately, given those same rave reviews, I have a feeling my final opinion isn’t going to be terribly popular. It may not even be entirely fair — I’ve been extremely interested in African politics and economics since high school (particularly West and East African — less so North and South), and have strong opinions on the subject that admittedly can cloud my perception at times. Nevertheless, clouded or not, this was my reaction, and it feels valid to me, so here we go.
The movie tells the based-on-a-true-story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), whose cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was taken hostage by a small group of Somali pirates in 2009. Cargo ships traveling in that region at that time (and now as well, though not to the same degree) were being attacked so often by pirates the area was officially declared a “war risk zone,” subject to higher insurance premiums for all the vessels traveling through it (in other words, this had a cost for corporations beyond the obvious ransom-y things). Ship captains were continually warned about the risk of pirates, and companies developed a long list of procedures used to try to deter or block them from getting on board.
Despite constant drilling on those procedures by Captain Phillips, though, when the Somali pirates in this story speed into view, there’s no stopping them (the Alabama crew manages to keep the pirates off the ship initially but not ultimately). Once aboard, the small crew of four “bad guys” make their demands — they will hold the ship and its people hostage, releasing them only in exchange for a million dollars.
The movie is primarily focused on the interactions between Phillips and the head pirate, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi, who just got an Oscar nom for his work in this film). There’s definitely an attempt to make Muse seem like a nice enough fellow — at least inasmuch as he’s the only pirate in the group who doesn’t want to kill anyone, and who has some ideas on how to keep the violence to a minimum.
But, of course, his partners are the usual movie-style African bad guys, filled with fury and blood lust, not to mention extreme greed. (When Phillips offers them the $30,000 in the ship’s safe, for example, the implication when they refuse is that it’s not enough because they’re greedy, know they can get more, and therefore want more. In reality, it’s got less to do with personal greed, and more to do with the fact returning with “only” $30,000 is a great way to get themselves shot by their bosses.)
Making matters worse, as Phillips and Muse are trying to come up with a plan to get out of this thing alive, the U.S. Navy arrives on the scene and begins preparing to send a team of SEALS in to kill or capture all the bad guys. Phillips talks the pirates into getting into the lifeboat so they can get the hell out of Dodge, and they, in turn, trick him into getting in there with them — the better to ransom him with, my dear.
Soon, Phillips and the four scary, evil pirates are stuck together in a tiny little motorized boat, the entire U.S. Navy (feels like!) hard at their heels. By the end of the incident, all but one of the bad guys are dead, one is sent to the U.S. and sentenced to 33 years in jail, and Phillips is on his way to writing a book that will eventually be made into, FULL CIRCLE!, this movie. (Note: sorry if that’s a spoiler, but this WAS in the news, you know.)
The film makes the most minimal of efforts to try to convey the idea that the pirates are not necessarily pirates by choice. The opening scenes include one of Phillips at home with his wife, all smoochy kissy, followed by a scene of the pirates in Somalia, where they are being ordered by their warlord boss to go get a ship and not come back without a million bucks in their pockets. Later, Muse says two things to Hanks that support this idea — “We [pirates] are just fisherman” and something about how “we all have bosses” (in other words, both Muse and Phillips are doing what they have been told to do).
The problem is, without any real context for either of those two statements, they’re not terribly meaningful, I would wager, for the majority of the audience. “We are just fisherman” comes off sounding rather a lot like Tony Soprano’s “I work in waste management,” for example. Yet, the fact is, Somalian piracy DOES have its roots in the fishing industry, and was, at least initially, an attempt to try to protect that industry and the families dependent on it.
You see, in 1991, dictator Siad Barre was overthrown, plunging the country into war as multiple sides battled for dominance. This left Somalia with no central government to defend the country’s economic interests — including the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) off their coast (territory rights to the waters and their fish). As soon as the government fell into disarray, fleets from Europe and Asia quickly took advantage, rushing to the EEZ and fishing the crap out of it.
Initially, the groups of “pirates” were the same fishermen who had made their livelihoods working those waters, now struggling to regain control and push out the Europeans and Asians exploiting their political upheaval. (The United Nations has reported that an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from Somali waters every year — so, you know, if you wanna talk about piracy, let’s talk about piracy. . .)
As the country continued to dive and more and more Somalians began to spiral down into extreme poverty, the fishermen realized how lucrative full-on piracy could be and started using it to help make money more directly — through a focus on theft and ransom instead.
After that, Somalian warlords inevitably got involved, forming increasingly sophisticated gangs. By the time Captain Phillips’s ship sailed into the region, warlords were calling all the shots, piracy had become one of the only real ways the average Somalian male could make enough money to feed his family, and trying to quit a pirate “gang” was about as safe a move as ratting out the mob.
None of this is explained in the movie, and the result of this lack of context or background is that we in the audience can’t help but see the pirates as evil men who need to be stopped at any cost. They are vicious men, driven predominantly by greed — not human beings with a complex set of needs and wants. Though initially, Muse is presented in a semi-sympathetic way, it gets harder and harder to hold onto that view the more you watch Forrest Gump suffer (though, Gump-jokes aside, Tom Hanks IS actually phenomenal in this film — the scene after he is rescued and in the US ship’s clinic is a powerful one, no argument there).
Then the U.S. Navy shows up, and things get even more disconcerting, as it becomes harder and harder to ignore the contrast between the “heroes” and the “villains.” The nasty, scary pirates? Are actually four utterly emaciated, dirt-poor, black teenagers (they were all under the age of 20; the real-life Muse was estimated to be between 17-19 years old), now being chased by dozens of highly trained, fully-armed white guys.
I get that this is how it went down and that it’s also how Phillips got out alive, so it’s arguable I’m being unfair. I can picture some readers interpreting this as me saying we should never make a film — no matter how accurate — about black people attacking white people because that alone is somehow inherently racist. Let me be clear, though: that is NOT what I’m saying.
What I’m saying is that this movie’s attempt to tell a rich story by including a look at the perspective of the Somalian pirates is so half-assed it almost ends up doing more harm than good, if you ask me (if there even was an attempt to tell a rich story here, a dubious premise in the first place). Without any such depth, Captain Phillips just becomes yet another in a long line of exciting, entertaining, but ultimately empty action flicks.
The filmmaker made very clear choices to keep things simple here — the Navy’s the good guys, the pirates the bad. But the total lack of political context made me uncomfortable as a viewer, and I left feeling disappointed by all the wasted potential. Captain Phillips could have been the platform for a truly thoughtful look at class and culture in Africa (and elsewhere), but instead takes a token shot at providing “the other side” and then it aims itself squarely at Hollywood-blockbuster-dom and fires.
And, man? I hate it when that happens.
I’m not saying this is a bad movie — as action flicks go, it’s well-made, well-acted, and satisfyingly suspenseful. But as thought-provoking flicks go, it’s a total flop. At least, it was a total flop for me. I’d be curious to hear what others who saw it think about all this, so if you’d like to share your experience, hitten zee comments!
(By the way, up next in my DVD pile is the film A Hijacking, a Danish film telling a similar story about Somalian pirates, but in a much more effective way (or so I’ve heard). Watch for a review of that coming soon! Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRhWoVylmdo.)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali