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Star Striped Tragedy: Captain Phillips Reassesed
Raphael Hall , January 22nd, 2014 07:23

Raphael Hall tackles some of the tricky questions raised by Paul Greengrass's modern epic

There’s a startling moment at the end of John Singleton’s 1995 campus biopic Higher Learning that stands among the most ludicrous and fragmented narrative resolutions in modern cinema. As an ambitious tale of gender divides, racial tensions and classic student-teacher dichotomies struggles to navigate towards a rational ending – in other words, a basic understanding of the ideas cooked up in its own plot – an ominous flag of surrender fills up the screen. Flapping coarsely in the wind above a cracked and faltered statue of Columbus, a grand portrait of the American flag is splashed across the frame with a shocking lack of subtlety, as if the blind patriotism of the film’s radically engineered campus politics wasn’t already clear enough. And as such, we, a passive audience thriving on ignorance, have no option but to yield ourselves entirely to the glory of those grand blood red stripes - despite the fact that the film has for the best part of two hours, demonstrated to us why that perfectly chartered union of states is anything but. “Without struggle, there is no progress” cautions a weary Laurence Fishburne playing the part of finger-wagging lecturer Maurice Phipps. Shuffling aside the ‘black, dyed in the wool’ republican sentiment of the man who coined that phrase, it could be countered with another Frederick Douglass quote: “Where ignorance prevails, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

Most contemporary reviews of Paul Greengrass’ similarly tragic modern epic Captain Philips have found fault only with supposed gaps in its already-vague adaptation of real-life events that took place off the horn of Africa a few years ago. But even then, few can argue against the grand design of production at play, and the superbly paced sequence of events that tells the story of a modern Ulysses at the helm of an endangered cargo charter. A band of impoverished pirates invade a colossal logistics vessel as it strays perilously towards the coast of Somalia – a country notorious among seafarers for its breeding of cloak and dagger piracy, and Tom Hanks, a suitably prosaic pawn for the American cause, exhibits a herculean performance as the titular sea farer.

It’s a magnificently furnished film whether you choose to let the broader politics of the picture slip through or not, and all of the Somali antagonists also bring stirring performances to the table. I can only wonder in fact if Barkhad Abdi, playing the part of bandit ringleader Abduwali Muse, has any bearing of the significance his lines have in wider debates of the moral implications of victimization in modern piracy. His million dollar trailer line in response to Philips’ query regarding his choice of income, and possible alternative paths of subsistence: “Maybe in America, Irish, maybe in America”, is all the more tragic because it offers a clear opportunity for the film to explore the politics that the producers are so knowingly side-stepping with their bulging laundry bags of cinematic trigger cash.

This of course, is something that action films aren’t supposed to do, but Greengrass is responsible for taking part in orchestrating a revivalism of a sort that harks back to a lost age of Hollywood - disaster epics that rooted themselves in character-based calamity; where emotional and moral struggle took precedence over simple survival. Whereas elaborate tales of apocalypse such as Independence Day, Twister and Deep Impact were designed to use characters as mere props around the brutal sway of nature (or alien)’s evil plan, forerunners in the genre (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno etc) showed basic regard for the independent thought and moral struggles of the central characters. Who can forget Paul Newman’s grilling of William Holden in the latter over his character’s plans to engulf San Francisco’s streets with corporate skyscrapers; “Don't you think you're suffering from an edifice complex?”

Captain Philips likewise, but much more suggestively, aligns the conflicting pursuits of the characters against each other in an open ended wrestle towards supremacy in the eyes of what each group holds dear. In the case of the ‘pirates’, this involves upholding national interests (haplessly targeting western exploitation of local marine resources), social interests (pleasing a trigger-happy middle man) and personal interests (subsiding loss of income from dissolving fishing opportunities). Philips’ set of values are just as rational, if a bit more restrained and less dramatic: steering his ship and crew to safety. This is where things get a bit sticky. Whilst the perspective framework of the film remains fixed on bringing an outcome of survival and safety for the crew onboard the ship, it fails to show similar regard for the well-being of the four teenage Somalis who subsequently find themselves staring down the gargantuan barrels of Uncle Sam’s unquestionable might and power.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the film had followed the simple conventions of most blasé disaster films before it, but the tragedy lies with what Captain Philips suggests about the fate of the terrified and exposed young Somalis subject to the full force of the ridiculously overstated gunships in their pursuit. It is incredibly unfortunate that the film touches upon sympathizing with the motives and backgrounds of these characters, without showing them the meekest strand of regard in the wider context and eventual resolution of the film. Why does it occasionally throw up political matzo balls like the tagline mentioned above and others such as Muse’s chilling revelation that “I got bosses. They got rules” when it proceeds to (in thrilling visual fashion I might add) show the U.S. Navy SEALS tactical snipers picking off the terrified teenagers one by one, before leading a doomed Muse to engage with an official ‘negotiator’ who plans to do anything but?

The tragedy lies once again with the lack of subtlety shown to these competing factions of the story. Indications of the Somalis impoverished existence and the few choices they are left with to make ends meet, from the establishing scenes of a raucous piracy camp based on the coast to the clearly distressed expressions on their faces as they try to negotiate an escape (ironically, in stark contrast to a relaxed Hanks once he discovers the likelihood of their true fate), are as obvious and foreboding as the grand panoramas Greengrass exhibits of the US Warships and helicopters set to the rescue of Captain Phillips and crew.

Recurrent wide shots of the mighty navy vessels in pursuit of the flimsy blow-up boat holding Phillips captive surmount to something even more shocking and frightening than the initial panic that entailed the pirates boarding the ship. A hand of justice that decides that three of the aggressors should be executed on site – with not even a slight mention of a fair trial – and the fourth, as the film endeavours to tell us, to be sent to life in prison under absurd and outdated piracy laws, most of which have been out of use for the best part of a century.

The apex of these juxtapositions rests with the immense and extraordinary delusion of the film’s final shot. After we follow Phillips into an emotional vacuum of release and closure within the ship’s nursing ward (one of Hanks’ finest hours on the acting scale), Greengrass decides to pull the curtain on the film with a huge, chest beating landscape shot of the three Navy warships and their entourage sprawling towards the horizon, in a scene even more hopelessly ignorant than the one I tried to illustrate from Higher Learning. Its supreme hegemony at its best, something which would send Chomsky spinning into a literary whirlwind of no return. Despite the clear inherent struggles of both groups involved in the story, Greengrass acquiesces to the modern tragedy of Hollywood: aware and perceptive enough to extend olive branches towards some of the most overbearing and polarising political issues of the present, but still too gutless to follow through.

Captain Phillips is out on DVD now