Thursday, 31 October 2013

Captain Phillips

When following a narrative, the audience does not simply route for whichever character is the most moral; rather, they respond to cues present in the way the story is told that inform them how to feel. To use the Pirates of the Caribbean films as an example – which, despite approaching the theme with a completely different tone and purpose, is comparable to Captain Phillips in that it also centres around pirates – we root for Captain Jack thanks to his charm, centrality to the story and the film’s light-hearted feel, and in spite of the fact her steals ships with little regard for the safety of others. 

All too often, serious, Oscar-baiting films that are ‘based on a true story’ present the divide between the moral Americans we’re to root for and the threatening foreigners we’re to hope are defeated in oversimplified shades of black and white. Two recent examples that were particularly honoured during awards season are Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Neither film bothers to humanise its Arabic characters, instead expressing sole interest in the American perspective and how its threat can be overcome. Such films encourage us to cheer an American hero, without ever tackling the moral intricacies of the wider context. 
Based on some of the trailers, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Captain Phillips (which is currently 16-1 to win best picture at the Oscars) is more of the same. Tom Hanks plays the titular seaman, who kisses goodbye to his wife before taking to the sea to captain a ship transporting cargo along the Arabian Sea. Panic ensues when a group of Somali pirates hijack the ship, with their leader Abduwali Abdukhadir ‘Skinny’ Muse (played enticingly by amateur Barkhad Abdi) pronouncing himself as the new captain.
Once again, foreigners are presented as a blood-thirsty rabble of ‘Others’, hell-bent on wreaking misery on innocent American lives, specifically that of the renowned decent figure of Tom Hanks. Thankfully, the film itself is more nuanced than this. Aside from its obvious virtues of being a gripping, exceedingly tense affair that does not let up for the whole of its full two hour, fifteen minute running time, Captain Phillips displays a sincere interest in the Somali captors. After the central concerns of ‘what’s going to happen next?’ and ‘Is everyone going to be OK?’ the main question prompted by the film is ‘What are the pirates’ motives?’
Some explanations are given in an early, pre-hijacking scene that depicts the difficult environment of their home, watched over by a war lord. More answers are offered in the brief, considered exchanges between Phillips and Muse, most tellingly, and potentially eye-opening to particularly naive audiences, when Phillips implores that ‘there’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people’; to which Muse replies, ‘maybe in America’.
Blink and you’d miss these moments, especially among the frenetic chaos that pervades most of the film, but they’re crucial in establishing an even-handed moral core and political context to the hijacking. In them, Muse gains a voice, and is able to express his point of view that he was forced into pirating ships after Western companies ruined his shipping business. His predicament certainly puts into perspective Phillips’ concerns that his kids won’t find it as easy to climb the job ladder as he did.
Still, more could be done in the name of balancing both sides. Throughout the ordeal we are constantly reminded that Phillips’ primary concern is his family, while none of the Somalis’ relations are even mentioned. And neither does the film compromise on setting up its protagonist as a noble, morally sound and self-sacrificial hero, even though reports suggest that the real life Phillips was far from such a straightforward good guy.
Greengrass’ trademark use of shaky-cam - that exhibits a claim to naturalism – and the self-important ‘based on a true story’ statement that features prominently on the poster should, therefore, be treated with as much scepticism as any film like this; regardless, Captain Phillips still deserves to be commended for showing sympathy towards its villains and contextualising their situations, and scenes of impending terror like the hijacking of the ship are some of this year’s most successfully realised action set pieces.
But Hollywood is still crying out for films bold enough to seriously question the misdeeds of its own nation, rather than yet more stories featuring innocent American victims. Sure, Captain Phillips was a true story, but it’s hardly representative of a common trend in reality; this U.S. cargo ship was the first to be hijacked in two centuries. Is it too much to ask for a Hollywood film to focus on the far greater number of victims of U.S. foreign policy? 

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