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



  • What did you expect? It’s a Tom Hanks film for crissakes! Tom Hanks, aka this generation’s Jimmy Stewart. Has Hanks EVER made a controversial or subtle film based upon geopolitical content? Much less one that calls into question America’s armed forces or foreign policy. Again — this is Tom Freaking Hanks!

    Apollo 13
    Saving Private Ryan
    Band of Brothers
    Charlie Wilson’s War
    Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

    And that doesn’t even include the jingoist documentaries he narrated.

    You actually thought Tom Hanks would let his brand be sullied by appearing in a film that questioned in any way, at any level, America’s greatness? If so, that’s the real story here. You should write an op-ed about that. I find that level of self-delusion fascinating.

  • alex_the_tired
    November 19, 2013 1:19 PM


    I’m surprised you missed such an obvious point in your critique. He tells the Somali with great outrage that “You are not a fisherman.”

    For the vast majority of Hanks’ demographic, that sentence translated through the emotional centers of the brain [sic] as “You are not a Christian.” These is a profoundly effective method for short-circuiting any attempt at engaging people in a long discussion about the cruelties visiting upon the Somali people by more powerful members of the global community.

    And don’t forget to label Oliver Stone’s JFK as another “documentary” that has completely screwed up the public’s ability to separate truth from distortion.

    • On November 22nd, 1963, while riding in his motorcade, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy died peacefully in his sleep.

      God’s honest truth.

  • well, I’ve just seen Hijacking and the analysis pretty much pans out for this one as well… without the need of Forest Gump himself, we get to witness the humanity of all the (white) humans involved from the worker to the CEO and his wife.

    I’ve not seen this discussed anywhere, but recent American films seem to chillingly succeed at rewriting history and politics precisely because ideology is only in the subtext. Which is especially insidious because in every other respect American mainstream movies nowadays are maximally blunt with no subtleties and leave nothing to the imagination.

    On the one hand there are those “serious” movies that just happen to feature a particular persona as adversaries whose only function is to provide a challenge to the protagonists. Rather than having an agenda like actual human beings, their agenda is an essential part of them. Black Panthers were crack-heads who don’t need a reason to be angry and just hang around in the 70ies and then fade away. At some point some Saddam-like figure will feature, only to morph into Jihadist-style fighters, or indeed Somali pirates, who also just happen to inhabit a particular time-line, etc. Just like the Nazis, Soviets, and Lannisters did before them, and the Zombies and Killer Robots will in the future.

    These movies seem all but designed to not just distill and normalize the image of this persona in the heads of viewers, but to stifle the normal impulse of wondering about who these people are, how they came to be, and what they want. Well, they are just like that, aren’t they? Might as well ask why the sky is blue.

    The second type of movie are the openly absurdist ones like Captain America. Who will complain about historical inaccuracies when the villain is a red devil cartoon character working from inside the Nazi war machine. But there is a similar subtext, in this case i.e. that a “normal” US WWII infantry unit is composed of white guys, black guys, and an Asian guy (seriously?). Just like today, but wielding period rifles (or shiny blue alien ones). So they get to whitewash segregation and internment camps, but who can complain, it is clearly fiction, isn’t it? Only probably more young people today get their images of WWII US military from games and movies like Captain America compared to even the “serious” propaganda pieces like Saving Private Forrest Wilson 13.

    While I generally think that every generation has gotten better and better at seeing through on-screen propaganda, you have to be impressed with the subtlety in otherwise blunt storytelling approach. Recipe for art it ain’t, I’d agree, but that has mostly been outsourced to European cinema, anyway.

  • One of the more potent agents of censorship in the US is the need to make money, especially when producing a film that costs at least tens of millions to make, or even hundreds of millions. I call this ‘economic censorship’.

    What will people pay to go see? Producers think that Americans want to see movies where America is the exceptional nation, the Greatest Force for Good the world has ever seen or ever will see. They fear that any movie criticising America will fail at the box office.

    So, from the start of movies until the ’60s, we got lots of movies where hard-working white American farmers, trying to feed a hungry world, were attacked by Red Savages until the cavalry came to the rescue (the first Red Menace).

    We saw Green Berets, showing how Americans were trying to save Vietnam from a totalitarian Commie dictator and give the Vietnamese their freedom.

    We saw the US version of the Quiet American, where the stupid Brit is tricked by the Commies into thinking the American killed hundreds of women and children, when it was really the Commies who killed those women and children, then they convinced the gullible Brit that it was the American.

    Etc., etc., etc.

    (But when Johnson asked American boys to go get theirsefs killed in Vietnam, many Americans were willing to pay to see movies that were against Vietnam. What, exactly, was MASH? I’m not sure. I AM sure about Catch 22, a very rare movie that criticised what the US did in WWII. And Schlachthof Fünf, another exposé of the lies the US told about what it did in WWII, i.e., the lie about never attacking targets with no military significance.)

    So the lie ain’t a new’un.

    • alex_the_tired
      November 20, 2013 7:24 PM

      Just an addendum: The U.S. military will only provide assistance to a film if 1. The script is submitted for review, 2. The script is considered to paint the military in a positive light.

      So. If you want to make a film about the war and you want to use military bases or props or so forth, you have to be sure to hand over a script that shows the military in the correct light.