"Of the crooked timber, no straight thing can ever be made." - Immanuel Kant
Paul Greengrass directed "United 93" in 2006. The film was marketed as an "apolitical" and "objective" account of the September 11th attacks, but was devoid of all historical context, and so functioned more as a Pentagon propaganda piece. Here was a film about a handful of state assisted Saudi Arabians attacking at least 3 high profile US buildings which totally ignored the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia, totally ignored how these attacks were used as a pretext to launch two illegal wars, totally ignored US ties to Al Qaeda, the group purportedly behind the attacks (on the very day of 9/11, the US were collaborating with Al Qaeda within the Macedonia civil war), and totally ignored both the motivations behind the attacks and what certain Saudi's stood to gain from another Western crusade. To this date, the 9/11 Commission, the White House, FBI, CIA and British government have failed to provide proof (not garnered from water-boarding) that Al Qaeda carried out 9/11 or that Al Qaeda chieftain Osama Bin Laden masterminded the attacks, let alone that these groups or individuals constitute the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, the two countries upon whom wars of retaliation were subsequently waged. Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011 (again no evidence was presented to the public). In 2001, before the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration turned down offers by Afghanistan's Taliban groups to turn Bin Laden peacefully over to US authorities.
Like "United 93", "Captain Phillips" revolves around a vessel being hijacked. Here the Maersk Alabama, a Danish/American container ship, is boarded by four armed Somali pirates. The pirates battle with the Alabama's crew, before escaping with the ship's captain (Tom Hanks) aboard a lifeboat. The United States Navy then arrives. They surround this lifeboat with a small fleet and proceed to assassinate three pirates. The fourth survives, and is subsequently jailed in America. Captain Phillips survives.
Whilst Greengrass obviously sympathises with both his Somalis and the crew of the Alabama, you simply can't frame a film as a thriller, or depend heavily on the US Navy loaning you a flotilla of aircraft carriers and destroyers, and not expect it to be anything other than compromised. This is ultimately a film in which the Somalis are manic bad guys (high on drugs, no less), in which the Alabama's crew are good guys "delivering aid to Africa" (most of their cargo wasn't relief aid), in which all context is ignored and in which the US Navy does "murderous but wholly necessary things". The film is matter-of-fact to a fault. This is all there is to reality, it says. Accept it.
But as everyone knows, to the point of being smugly annoying, that is not "all there is". The Somali pirates are largely a result of Western companies dumping nuclear and toxic waste off Somalia's coast, coupled to severe illegal over-fishing by foreign super trawlers (300 million dollars worth of seafood stolen from Somalia each year). The United Nations would itself release numerous reports blaming toxic waste for mutations, deaths, diseases and illnesses within Somalia. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy for Somalia, would say: "There is uranium, lead, cadmium, mercury, industrial, radioactive, hospital and chemical waste killing Somalis and completely destroying the ocean." Why can companies do this? Because Somalia's government has all but collapsed, thanks to Western Empires deliberately destabilizing and developmentally arresting the nation, funding warlords, dictators (Siad Barre et al) and instigating proxy wars with border nations. This has been going on, uninterrupted, since the late 1950s; any local government body not beholden to Western corporate interests, and which attempts to nationalise resources, will be destroyed.
In the early 2000s, Somalia began to fight back. To oppose US-backed warlords, right-wing religious factions began to unite, some under the name The Union of Islamic Courts. The UIC united almost all of Somalia and provided stability, but was nevertheless swiftly demonized by the West – their unwitting creators - as "Islamist terrorists". Because the CIA solves everything with bullets and blood, the US and UK then pushed its Ethiopian puppets into invading Somalia. Tens of thousands died and the UIC was pushed back. Tired of all this crap, and forged in a cocktail of anarchy, the militant group Al Shabaab was formed, partially to fight off Western and Ethiopian gangs. Today, they are US public enemy number 1.
Whilst Greengrass undoubtedly intends his film to be a work of social critique, possibly like some of his earlier pictures ("The Green Zone"), "Captain's" narrow scope hampers things. You can not tackle such a loaded event in such a constrictive manner and expect it not to set up, intentionally or otherwise, many false assumptions. One senses Greengrass attempting something approaching satire – the idea of a film in which a zillion dollar US fleet is absurdly pitted against four lowly pirates who literally struggle to "climb to the top of a (socioeconomic?) ladder" is genius – but satire is completely beyond him. Juxtaposed scenes in which Hanks and our pirates talk about "fighting for promotions" feel, for example, reductive rather than enlightening.
Beyond politics, the film is tense, well shot, but also repetitive and overlong. The casting of Hanks brings dubious (and possibly ironic) connotations, Hanks the poster boy for a post-John Wayne Americana ("Apollo 13", "Private Ryan", "Band of Brothers"), genteel but packing heat. Philosopher Jacques Ellul once predicted that future propaganda would increasingly portray itself as being "apolitical", "naturalistic" and cloak itself in "realism". Greengrass' military-men are emblematic of this shift: grim, stoic and fixated on "just doing their jobs", everything forever outside their purview and moral radar. Greengrass' camera adopts the same stance.
6/10 – Wastes a good premise.
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