Captain Phillips: The pawn hypothesis

Directed by Paul Greengrass, and starring Tom Hanks, with outstanding performances by a group of Somali actors, Captain Phillips can be viewed and enjoyed purely as a well-made, based-on-a-true-incident action/adventure flick. But beneath the surface, there’s more to think about. Fortunately, Greengrass has avoided the temptation to club us over the head with the subtext, allows the story to tell itself, and lets viewers draw their own conclusions.

Even a casual viewer can intuit that there’s more to the story than just the action. I left the movie theatre wrung out from the suspense—even though the real-life 2009 incident has been extensively covered by the press, and even though we know the outcome before the film begins. But I also left thinking about one particular theme that played out on several levels: Virtually everyone in the story was playing the role of pawn in someone else’s game. Phillips may have been the only hostage held at gunpoint, but he was not the only person in the story who was being manipulated by factors beyond his control. Here are my ideas about some of the other hostage scenarios that were at work during the Maersk Alabama incident.

Pawn hypothesis 1: Captain and crew

At one point, when it’s clear that they’re in danger of being boarded by Somali pirates, members of the crew angrily remind Captain Phillips that this is not what they signed on for. But Phillips—a company man whose duties include protecting the cargo—reminds them that they did, indeed sign on for this dangerous route. Perhaps [I’m speculating here] they were getting extra pay for the hazardous duty, and perhaps that extra pay was an incentive that made the risk worthwhile. Or perhaps, as has been alleged [but not depicted in the movie], Captain Phllips, in an effort to be a better company man, steered the Maersk Alabama on a fuel-saving shortcut that took it too close to pirate-infested waters. Later, 16 of the 19 Alabama crew members sued Captain Phillips for damages, claiming that he ignored warnings of piracy and the admonition to keep ships at least 600 miles off the Somali coast. The Maersk Alabama was attacked 380 miles offshore. Ultimately, the workers were at the mercy of management and their own economic needs, and management itself may have been co-opted by a corporate culture of cost efficiency.

Pawn hypothesis 2:  Pirates

The Somali pirates, while doing a lot of improvising, were anything but independent players. Only one line of dialogue in the movie hints at the reason the pirates are so intent on taking the ship and holding it for insurance ransom. Captain Phillips says to them, “You’re not fisherman anymore, are you?” That sentence refers to the dire economic and environmental circumstances that have driven some former Somali fisherman into the dangerous world of hijacking cargo ships off the horn of Africa.

After a civil war in 1991 wiped out the last vestiges of an organized government in Somalia, the country’s coastline—a rich fishery—was left unguarded. Fishing fleets from all over the world swooped in, overfishing the area, depleting its underwater population, and making it virtually impossible for low-tech, Somali fishermen to compete. Some nations also used the unprotected Somali coastline as a convenient dumping ground for toxic waste–further degrading the natural habitat that supported local fishermen. Deprived of their livelihood, some of those fishermen turned to piracy. Others—some who had never been fishermen at all—saw an opportunity to make money by hijacking commercial cargo ships. And some, as is implied by the movie, became the bosses who motivated and controlled pirates like those who tried to hijack the Maersk Alabama.

Pawn hypothesis 3Military

While the rescue of Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama appears to be a legitimate engagement for the U.S. Navy, it’s worth examining this incident as an example of the uses of U.S. military power—or the military power of any nation, for that matter. It’s important to remember that most wars have been fought over resources. So, when politicians talk about “protecting American interests,” they’re referring as much to American corporate interests as they are to America’s security interests. I’m not sure if, in my pawn theory, that makes the U.S. Navy a pawn for protecting the Maersk Alabama, or if it makes the Maersk Alabama and its crew the pawns in U.S. foreign policy. Either way, it’s worth pondering the role of the U.S. military.

Pawn hypothesis 4: Heroes

Finally, on a more macro level, I can’t help thinking that the whole portrayal of the Captain Phillips saga is part of the hero game played by American media. Contemporary mass media have created a “hero industrial complex,” in which central players in a variety of episodes are glorified and lauded as heroes. After the Maersk Alabama incident, Captain Phillips was seen as a hero who offered himself as a hostage to protect his crew. Even Phillips—the real one—has called that portrayal media hype. Captain Phillips, while showing that the captain was at gunpoint when he entered the lifeboat, still leaves the impression that the man was heroic. Casting Tom Hanks—an actor with a very high likeability quotient—certainly adds a halo effect. And while this particular movie did a reasonable job of sticking to the facts on record, it still glossed over some details and skipped most of the back story of the pirates, in the pursuit of a bankable movie. Yes, it’s just a movie–we can expect poetic license and suspension of disbelief. But too many hyped-up news reports and Hollywood movies–ostensibly based on fact–do history a disservice by distorting—or at least oversimplifying—reality as a way of creating a feel-good-America story and, of course, driving up ratings and selling tickets.

I enjoyed Captain Phillips as an adventure story, and so will many others, I’m sure. I only hope that people will take a few moments, after catching their breath, to think about the deeper issues that lie below decks.