Captain Phillips (Directed by Paul Greengrass, 2013)
The most interesting question about this morality tale of American power efficiently eliminating vermin is whether it should be seen merely as a feel-good pot boiler or whether its uncompromising resistance to depth betrays a wider anxiety about the way the world is going.
Tom Hanks, captain of a container ship that is boarded by Somali pirates, turns in a polished performance as the decent man who responds to crisis with impressive, yet not extravagant, heroism. He was a better choice than, say, Harrison Ford, who excels in roles where the good man,
finally goaded beyond endurance, comes out fighting and kicks ass. Hanks needs to be more ordinary than that, for the ass-kicking here is left to the military, with its hi-tech drones and Navy SEALs who pull off a flawless rescue. The emphasis is on collective not individual brilliance.
The problem, in all ways, is with the Somalis. They are an irremediably stupid and vicious lot, squabbling, divided and duplicitous right from the start. They’re addicted to khat and nicotine. They’re not even good at ‘African’ things like walking with bare feet. The youngster who does so is promptly and improbably maimed by stepping on broken glass.
The only concession to a ‘back story’ is a five second sequence in which the lead pirate complains that international ships stole all of Somalia’s fish. This is left hanging for a while until Hanks, with a gun pressed to his head, utters the telling truth: “You’re not a fisherman!” So we can dispense with liberal hand-wringing about history and all that stuff, and just kill the bad guys with cool professionalism.
This, the film makers tell us, is “a true story.” Issues of cinematic licence aside, it barely needs saying that Hollywood is selective in the stories it tells. This one seems designed to reassure mass American audiences that all is well with the world; superior technology, surgical drone strikes and extrajudicial executions will prevail over evil and keep America safe.
This level of delusion is not so reassuring for audiences elsewhere.
Doubtless there are more nuanced movies coming out of the United States, but we don’t get to see them in Rwanda’s spanking new (and only) cinema, which confines itself to would-be blockbusters, with the volume turned up high and the air-con way down low. No chance of cat-napping to escape the high-production-value banality.
Interestingly, though, the freezing theatre has pulled in only a couple of dozen viewers, mostly expatriates, for this Saturday night showing. The local monied classes are probably disporting themselves in Kigali’s discreet clubs, which intersperse the afro-beat staple with a bit of gangsta rap. Equally banal, but at least it’s black guys saying don’t fuck with them.
We went to see this movie partly in order to escape the tide of Mandelamania sweeping the world that day. The radio and internet had become unbearable. Two interesting pieces did however eventually pierce our self-imposed media blackout.
Mandela in the age of drones was particularly apposite.
If Nelson Mandela really had won, he wouldn’t be seen as a universal hero was also good. I have been struggling on and off for four years to read the author’s extraordinarily difficult book, The Parallax View. This less demanding piece made me think it’s worth the effort of trying again.
The subsequent “selfie picture" nonsense shows once again the chronic attention deficit disorder of the world’s mass media. After days of panegyric the story has to move on, so instead of more depth let’s find something trivial and gossipy to write about. Yuk.