By John Bohn, Daily Community Culture Editor
Published October 16, 2013
Those who saw the theatrical trailer to “Captain Phillips” this summer should remember the opening: From beyond the radar screen, a blip materializes. Captain Phillips walks to the deck to see a small skiff headed toward his ship. He’s under fire! Now the pirates have taken over the bridge! When they are allowed to speak, the pirates tell the crew over the telecom “in one minute, I will kill your friend.” So scary! So violent! What I gathered from this trailer was that “Captain Phillips” would be the most dehumanizing and neglectful treatment of an overwhelmingly complex political and economic horror story that Hollywood could conceive.
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Interestingly, the consensus among critics is that “Captain Phillips” provides a nuanced treatment of the pirates, which may have come as a surprise for those who, like me, had no hopes. Indeed, against all expectation “Captain Phillips” does provide some background to the pirates. But before we jump into this, let me just state my case clearly: This is a highly distorted representation of facts. As with every work of art ever claiming to be “based on true events,” it is a carefully selected and constructed “re-presentation” of these events, which in this case, actually happened along the Horn of Africa in April 2009 and not in the Mediterranean Sea where it was re-created in early 2012.
So how then is this film carefully selected and constructed, and more immediately, why should you not go see this film?
True, there is a 10-minute scene at the beginning of the film set in a Somali fishing village that attempts to provide some explanation as to the social and economic world from which the pirates emerge, one of impoverishment and desperation. Later on, there is even a more specific reference to the corporate exploitation of the sovereign-less Somali waters that initially prompted the hijacking by Somali fishers, who had no chance in competing with opportunistic commercial fisheries.
But this latter fact gets mentioned just before Captain Phillips, held hostage in a getaway ship, calls the pirates “more than fishermen.” Based on how the pirates have been portrayed thus far in the film, the subtext is clear. The pirates are clearly using the excuse of corporate exploitation to justify what is, in reality, a greedy pursuit of money.
All throughout the film, the pirates constantly talk about money. “We’re going to make a lot of money,” they say, chasing after the Maersk Alabama. When Captain Phillips offers them $30,000 to not take the ship, the movie seems to say that for an impoverished Somalian, that should totally be enough! Heck, the pirates (the director finds necessary to include) just got six million dollars from a previous hijacking. What more do you want? Never mind the fact that many of these million-dollar ransoms the pirates demand are actually demands upon corporations to clean up the Somali coastline, which they have used as a cheap dumping ground for hazardous waste.
This act of historical censorship even swings the other way, giving the union workers a bad rap.
After the pirates’ first failed attempt to rob the ship, the workers complain that they have been treated wrongly by Maersk and would like to make appeals to their union. After hearing this, Phillips writes to his wife back home that he has a “new crew to get in shape.” For what is the proper solution in this unjust scenario? You still need to do your job — a theme that could have been written by infamous Nazi bureaucrat Adolph Eichmann.
To add insult to injury, the film portrays these workers as scared, helpless and lazy compared to the fearless Eichmann-cum-Phillips. Turning Phillips into the hero, a choice that a recent CNN interview with the crew questions, seems to say that what is valued in our political climate is a worker who rises to the occasion because, in truth, there is no one who will protect you against workplace injustice after 40 years of union-busting that began with Reagan vs.