Captains Courageous (with a Little Military Help)



Captain Phillips will be hard to find as new Christmas movies play at the local Cineplex, but it is most certain to return to the big screen after the Academy Award nominations are announced. Both Tom Hanks and the film are likely to be nominated.

At the end of Captain Phillips, the eponymous character, played by Tom Hanks, is ministered to by a Navy nurse. He’s  psychologically and physically wounded after spending a number of harrowing days as a hostage to Somali pirates who have board his massive cargo ship. She’s calm and competent and caring. Once the movie has delivered him into her productive custody, the credits role, assuring us that he returned home to his loving wife and underachieving son in Vermont. We’re told the fate of the ringleader: he’s in an American prison serving 33 years while Philips, within year of the episode, is back at work, presumably undaunted and even more vigilant than he was before it all began. This bright-sided nurse is the last of a long line of dedicated military personnel who serve with the greatest Navy in the world.

Make no mistake, this is at one level a fine character study of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. We’re shown by the gifted Hanks that the Yankee Phillips has a lot of grit and imagination, and loyalty to his American crew operating the Maersk Alabama, one container ship in the large Maersk commercial fleet. [Fortunately, Phillips’s powers of resistance last longer than Hank’s attempts at a New England accent.]  Philips is so skillful in organizing his 20-member crew and manipulating Muse, the leader of the rag-tag group, that not a single American life is lost.

But this film is also a paean to the rightness of American military power projected around the globe. Summoned by the beleaguered captain, the cavalry comes to the rescue with the most sophisticated set of tools that money can buy. When the nameless,cool Navy Seal sharpshooters stride off the deck once they’ve taken out the desperate pirates, we are assured of our safety, even if we live and work far away from the Horn of Africa, and the Defense Department budget passes further into the realms of an unassailable national expense.

Yet there is something a bit askew in this most asymmetrical of skirmishes presented as part of the global war on terrorism. The Kalashnikov rifles that the Somali’s carry can do a lot of damage, but to say that they are no match for American firepower is to grossly understate the case. President Reagan’s Operations Urgent Fury (1983) which brought about the restoration of constitutional government after a military coup on Grenada, a tiny Caribbean island, offers us a similar case of the eagle versus the field mouse. Whether it’s the rescue of American medical students in Grenada or the protection of international shipping lanes for multi-national conglomerates, be assured that our military is poised to carry out the mission. Urgent Fury helped erase America’s Vietnam Complex, and the rescue of the Alabama’s crew (2009) helps erase the humiliation of 9/11 and served notice to the high-jackers who had successfully pulled off a number of extortions prior to the Alabama episode.

As usual in these epics, there is little context provided. [At least the screenwriters of Argo saw fit to provide a five minute history lesson about the CIA engineered coup of 1953 and other bad moments in US-Iranian relations before it got down to its free-the-diplomats storyline.] The pirates are given a chance to mutter something about their diminished fishing industry and about the Somali warlords who coerce them to do their bidding, but Phillips is having none of it, and, presumably, we don’t either. Furthermore, this small group of four, bold and daring (or foolish?) enough to board a fast-moving cargo ship, are a fractious group, disagreeing with one another about objectives and tactics. Turns out that they don’t even know their best interests for the Alabama is delivering food to malnourished peoples in Mombasa, Kenya, or so Phillips claims. Thus, we’re left with another portrait of slightly crazed and ominous dark-skinned people who threaten our livelihood and our values. Dramatically they’re useful only as background for a patriotic display of individual courage and collective power.

Director Paul Greengrass (the English director best known for the Bourne movies) is an efficient storyteller. He knows how to effectively cut between Phillips’s departure from his safe harbor in Vermont and the destitution of the Somali village from which the highjackers are recruited. He skillfully orchestrates the cat and mouse game once the pirates board the ship. And he builds suspense throughout the entire hunt sequence as the American destroy Bainbridge bears down upon the covered lifeboat that is the escape vehicle for the pirates and their captive, Phillips. But Greengrass’s efforts are excessive: wanting to create villains who are not simply bad men but demonic, he and his film editor  show the pirates in the cramped lifeboat as a series of gyrating bodies and hideous masks. With a $55 million budget, you can use all of the pyrotechnics of modern film making. When we are talking about these kind of dollars, it should be no surprise that the producers should find willing allies in the military with its own high cost weaponry. The fact that in two months the film returned its investment four-fold (equally split between domestic and foreign markets) indicates that there is much approval for action pictures with the right politics.

Looking for a more nuanced depiction of capture at sea and even more applicable tale in a post-9/11 world? Turn to Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855), a narrative like Captain Phillips based on a true story. Melville’s tale is much less action packed and more psychologically astute. The tale takes place off the remote western coast of South America. Its central consciousness is Amasa Delano, captain of the sealer The Bachelor’s Delight out of Massachusetts, and Melville’s representative of The New American Man. Delano comes upon a distressed slave ship under the command of a demoralized Spanish captain, Benito Cereno.  Despite the fact that many slaves and crew are dead, allegedly because of the storm, the slaves who remain are curiously obedient to Cereno. Confined principally to Delano’s inner life, we work with him through the mystery of what has happened and the drama that unfolds in front of him when he naively boards the ship without members of his crew. Melville is most interest in Delano’s mind-set, which is the prevailing American mindset. He’s discerning and optimistic, curious and naïve. And he has two rather pronounced biases that were typical of his age: he embraces American superiority to “old Europe,” and he believes that Africans are childlike and intellectually unsophisticated, and certainly not willing or able to mutiny.The narrative draws its power from our knowledge of the date of its publication, five years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and a pivotal year in the national debate about the place of slavery in national life.




About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *