Tag Archives: piracy

SYNDICATED COLUMN: “Captain Phillips” is a Beautiful Lie

“Cinéma Vérité” as Political Propaganda

Paul Greengrass is a gifted director who specializes in historical reenactments, a once marginal genre that in recent years hits the sweet spot, earning critical plaudits as well as bringing in bank (Greengrass’ “United 93,” Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Downfall,” about Hitler’s final days in his bunker). Greengrass’ latest entry in this field is “Captain Phillips,” a retelling of the 2009 hijacking of a container ship by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks stars in the title role.

Watching this film left me with an uneasy feeling, like I’d digested a delicious meal devoid of nutrition. It was a fun drama. But I didn’t learn anything. Why not?

This is solid Hollywood filmmaking. Tight scripting, sharp editing and unpretentious cinematography deliver a story that keeps you in your seat long after you began having to pee. Hanks delivers one of his finest performances, driving a stake into his rep as an always-playing-himself actor; Barkhad Abdi is a sensational revelation as pirate leader Abduwali Muse.

But what does this film mean? What message does Greengrass convey to his audience?

In random order, here are the takeaways: leadership is tough. Bravery exacts a high cost. In an interconnected world — we watch Phillips email his wife after the pirates’ first attempt to board the Maersk Alabama — it’s nevertheless possible to be alone, isolated and vulnerable. Intermodal transport, an industry in which vast ships carrying thousands of tons of goods are piloted by an unarmed skeleton crew, is surreal. If nothing else, “Capitain Phillips” is worth watching because it opens a window into the lonely lives of the men and women responsible for keeping our store shelves stocked.

Pull out of the multiplex parking lot, however, and you quickly realize the real revelation: “Phillips” is pro-government propaganda.

Greengrass has created the most frightening kind of propaganda — so effective that for most people it will become the definitive historical account of an event. Unlike the hilariously shrill propaganda flicks of the past, from “Triumph of the Will” to Cold War-era artifacts like “Rambo” and “Red Dawn,” the new breed pretends not to editorialize. Affecting a quiet, Zoloft-inflected tone and economical, apparently straightforward scriptwriting, this movie plays it close to the vest, coming off as deadly fair and serious. Which makes it easy to miss what is left out.

This new cinéma non-vérité uses high art to sanitize history in order to elevate the imperialist, militarist geopolitical agenda of the U.S. government in its post-9/11 war on terror.

            Kathryn Bigelow never scratches the surface of Osama bin Laden’s motivations in “Zero Dark Thirty.” He’s just a target, a cipher in a beard, so we don’t care when he dies. Her film is thrilling yet vacuous.

It is far from settled history that United Flight 93 was brought down by the passenger revolt — the 9/11 Commission Report leaves open the possibility that it was shot down. But that would prompt uncomfortable questions. Greengrass’ film, which unquestioningly accepts the “let’s roll” scenario, all but sets it in stone for posterity.

Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is devoid of political context, especially the historical basis for the Iranian revolutionaries’ contempt for the United States. Best not to mention the coup, the shah, corruption or torture.

American movies are about choices. Will the protagonist choose right or wrong (and which is which)? In “Captain Phillips,” however, the ethical quandaries rest not on Hanks’ character, who handles his ordeal as courageously and competently as you could expect, but on Abdi’s shoulders. It’s more than a little odd.

“We are just fisherman,” Abdi explains after seizing control of the vessel. Fortunes reverse after crewmen hidden in the engine room capture him and trade him for their captain, who offers them $30,000 in cash and a lifeboat to leave the ship. Disgusted that the Somalis won’t settle for less than “millions” and physically brutalized, Hanks spits “you are not a fisherman!” at Abdi an hour later into the movie.

It’s a puzzling narrative choice. Not only is Abdi’s a supporting role, we don’t see much deliberation. Muse is in it for the big bucks all along. So are his colleagues.

Passing up the obvious chance to use this mother of all culture clashes as a means to discuss race and class, Greengrass has nevertheless succumbed to the hoary colonial instinct to ask, almost out loud, why $30,000 isn’t enough to sate a gang of starvation-thin guys from one of the world’s poorest countries. The closest we get to an answer is a tossed-off aside by Abdi that the fish “left” Somali waters.

The background, mentioned only obliquely in this movie about Somali piracy, is that Somalia’s fishing industry had been decimated. After Somalia collapsed into the sectarian civil conflict in the early 1990s, the absence of a strong central government — coupled with the indifference of the international community — opened a vacuum for opportunists. Foreign trawlers and other vessels dump industrial waste, toxins and even nuclear waste — including uranium — off the Somali coast. Foreign fishing ships use drift nets to steal the fish that survive.

Time magazine reported in 2009 that Somalis turned to piracy after Western ships made it impossible to fish: “A United Nations report in 2006 said that, in the absence of the country’s at one time serviceable coastguard, Somali waters have become the site of an international ‘free for all,’ with fishing fleets from around the world illegally plundering Somali stocks and freezing out the country’s own rudimentarily-equipped fishermen. According to another U.N. report, an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from the country’s coastline each year.”

Desperate Somali fishermen formed vigilante flotillas to go after foreign fishing vessels. Some robbed the poachers at gunpoint. This turned out to be much more lucrative than fishing. Piracy became a $50 million a year industry.

If Abduwali Muse isn’t really a fisherman, he didn’t have that option to begin with.

Postscript: Somalis who still try to fish are harassed, questioned and detained by American warships assigned to the Horn of Africa to deter pirates. (In “Captain Phillips,” this Navy practice is whitewashed.)

Two or three additional lines of dialogue would have enlightened American movie audiences about the complexity of the piracy issue. Exposing the antagonists’ motivations would have made “Captain Phillips” a smarter movie, a tragedy in which opposing forces, neither side evil, are forced into a clash in which at least one side must die. Greengrass gives us all the moral nuance of cowboy-versus-Injun movie.

“Capitain Phillips” is the triumph of suburban schlubs and high-tech military hardware over hollow-eyed black men in rags, horribly unfamiliar with basic oral hygiene.

By the way, if some of the Maersk Alabama’s crewmen are to be believed, Phillips was a lousy captain who imperiled them by skirting too close to the Somali coast. Deborah Waters, an attorney representing 11 crewmen who are suing Maersk, said: “He told them he wouldn’t let pirates scare him or force him to sail away from the coast.”

Maybe, maybe not. Only those who were there know for sure.

Making films is also about choice.

When you make a film based on history, it’s impossible to include every detail. Nor should you try.

Still, basic background facts are crucial to understanding the event being depicted. Omitting or spinning issues (why Somalis resorted to piracy) strips them of context. Deploying a matter-of-fact tone makes these cinematic lies (because the Somalis are poor and greedy) credible.

It is unforgivable to promote America’s we’re-the-good-guys party line at the expense of the victims of the system. (Muse, politically voiceless in this film, is serving 33 years in federal prison.) Dressing up a perversion of truth in pretty lighting, and stuffing tainted dialogue into the mouths of great actors, results in an affront to art as well as history.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. Go there to join the Ted Rall Subscription Service and receive all of Ted’s cartoons and columns by email.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: How to Save Books

Why E-Books Need Print to Thrive

Borders and Barnes & Noble killed independent bookstores. Amazon killed Borders. Now Barnes & Noble, which sells more than 20 percent of pulp-and-ink books in the U.S., is under siege.

If B&N collapses: the death of books.

Cultural apocalypse.

Neo-feudalism.

You may remember such classics as “How the Internet Slaughtered Newspapers” and “How Napster Decimated the Music Business.” It’s always the same story: Digitalization destroys profits.

Whether it’s newspapers, magazines, CDs or books (“pBooks,” they call them now), the electronic assault on tangible media follows a familiar pattern.

First: Pricing is set too low; margins get squeezed.

I pay $43 a month to get The New York Times delivered; new digital-only subscribers get the app for $5. In the book biz per-unit net to publishers is actually a few cents higher for e-books. But that margin is deceptive. “If e-book sales start to replace some hardcover sales, the publishers say, they will still have many of the fixed costs associated with print editions, like warehouse space, but they will be spread among fewer print copies,” notes the Times. E-books also eliminate paperback editions, a big second chance for publishers to break into the black.

Second: Piracy runs rampant.

Piracy of print media was virtually unheard of. But digitalization makes piracy tough for even the most honest consumer to resist. It’s easy and it’s fast. E-book knock-offs look and feel exactly the same as the real thing. As of the end of 2011 an estimated 20 percent of all e-books downloaded onto Kindles, Nooks and iPads were pirated. That’s a 20 percent pay cut to authors, agents and publishers—a number that will only go up.

And “legal piratization” is on the horizon. On February 6th a federal court in New York City ruled that ReDigi, an online marketplace for “pre-owned” MP3 files, can continue to operate pending the outcome of a lawsuit by Capitol Records. And public libraries are already “lending” e-books to multiple “borrowers” with the click of a mouse—the same process as buying them. But free.

Third: à la carte sales whittle down revenues.

Twenty years ago if you liked a song you heard on the radio you paid $14 for a CD that had 14 songs on it—13 of which might be filler. iTunes’ 99-cent songs brought back the single—but cheaper. (45s used to cost $3.) The result: the collapse of the music biz. According to Forrester Research, total U.S. music sales and licensing revenues fell from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2009—a decline of 57 percent in a decade. People still liked music. They just didn’t have to pay for it anymore.

There are already apps that sell e-books by the chapter. Some publishers give away free chapters as samples. Why should a college student assigned to read chapter two pay $40 for the whole thing? À la carte book sales will further depress profits.

Why should you care if traditional publishers go under? What about the democratizing effect of the Internet, which allows anyone—not just big-name authors hooked-up with fancy well-connected agents—to publish a book?

Granted, digitalization opens doors for writers who might never have been able to break through the “no unsolicited manuscripts” wall that surrounded old-media gatekeepers. Elitism was and remains a problem.

But there’s a bigger problem: removing the profit incentive from books means more titles about vampires and werewolves and fewer in the fields of history and sociology. Because lower profits make it tougher for publishers to invest in big time-intensive projects, it deprofessionalizes our highest form of popular culture. The historian Robert Caro began working on his brilliant five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in 1982. He expects to finish in 2015. Tiny digital royalties eaten away by piracy couldn’t have sustained Caro’s research for three years—much less 32.

“Inside [the Kindle’s] plastic case, other things lurk,” Sarah Lee writes in the UK Guardian. “Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls. The e-book world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliché is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.”

Goodbye, Mr. Caro. Hello, 99-cent fan fiction.

You might not care. But you should.

Fourth but not last: the loss of a product’s brick-and-mortar distribution outlets reduces consumer consciousness of a product. In New York, where I live, all the music megastores—Tower, HMV and Virgin—are gone. So are most small record stores.

I used to spend at least one day a week hopping from one CD store to the next. I probably spent $50 to $100 a week on music. Now I spend the same amount in three months. I still love music. I just don’t think about it as often. iTunes is just a list of names and titles.

Now Barnes & Noble and what’s left of the independents are all that’s standing between an uncertain present and a disastrous—music-like—future.

“Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket. But in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books,” notes The New York Times. A broad, deep book industry requires retailers willing to sell midlist titles and books that don’t do well—i.e., most of them.

Publishers say they want to save B&N, which is locked in an existential fight against Amazon. Things turned ugly after Amazon urged bookbuyers to visit stores in order to use their smartphones to scan barcodes of titles so they could buy them elsewhere—online, from Amazon, at a discount. B&N retaliated by banning books directly published by Amazon from its stores.

Amazon says it doesn’t want to drive B&N and other brick-and-mortar stores out of business. Their actions belie that. But if Amazon management were smart, they would subsidize stores like B&N. Remember what happened to the music biz when record stores disappeared—the overall music business cratered. All music sales, including those of iTunes, would be higher today if Tower et al. were still around.

Sadly, Amazon doesn’t seem smart. Like most American companies, it’s looting its own future in favor of short-term, quarterly lucre.

“Shopping on Amazon is a directed experience—it works best when you know what you’re looking for,” says Charlie Winton, CEO of Counterpoint Press. “But how does that help with, for instance, a first novel? When independent bookstores were in a healthier state, staff picks and hand selling could bring attention to great books people didn’t know they wanted. Now that’s much harder.”

And many of those bookstore “customers” would have eventually bought that book from Amazon.

E-books are here to stay. But there’s a way to save the overall book business for both print and electronic editions. The solution requires three parts.

Congress should join the other countries that have major book industries in passing a Fixed Book Price Agreement, in which booksellers and publishers agree on what price books may be sold nationally—i.e., no $25 books selling for $10 at Costco. In France and other nations studies have shown that FBPAs protect independent stores, increase the diversity and quality of titles sold, and support more authors.

Recognizing the unique cultural contribution of books as well as the threat to our national heritage posed by digitalization, Congress should exempt publishers from antitrust laws. This would allow publishers to collude to set prices and hold the line against predatory discounting.

Finally, publishers should flip the current arrangement, in which Amazon enjoys steeper discounts than brick-and-mortar stores. Even if Amazon gets charged a higher wholesale price they still have big advantages; many people don’t live near a store or are simply too lazy to visit one. And they carry everything.

It’s more than a question of preserving print as a fetish commodity. E-books won’t thrive if their print forebears vanish.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL