When overlaid on the already-assured blockbuster impact of Tom Hanks new movie Captain Phillips, a frustrated but pithy comment by New Zealands Greenpeace chair on the role of her organizations activists in Russia offers a critical if largely unexamined view of Hollywoods only occasionally positive impact in world opinion on real maritime security.
“We know that our people are no more pirates than Johnny Depp,” Stephanie Mills told One News, of TVNZ.
Depp, of course, is the actor who brought to life the lavish fantasy figure of Captain Jack Sparrow in a movie series that for many made the eccentric swashbuckler, seen battling his former ethereal pirate allies, the best known—if equally non-existent—Pirate of the Caribbean.
Buried in the distant past? Real pirates, such as Blackbeard, the particularly blood thirsty Ned Low, and the tea-totaler Black Bart, all probably rolling in their graves, irritated but unsustained in their wrath of being displaced in infamy by an celluloid imposter.
Also still missing in action in Tinseltown? The ominous challenge maritime owners, operators, crews and others now face in the Gulf of Guinea, primarily off the coast of Nigeria and far removed (in both character and geography) from recent East African history.
Which brings us to the realities brought by Hollywood and its international brethren to the cinema and then—if not “pirated” beforehand—into our homes.
Captain Phillips, the real-life story of how the MV Maersk Alabama skipper was held hostage for five days in 2009 in a lifeboat after Somali pirates dragged him from his vessel, is heralded across five continents as a virtually sure thing at the next Oscars. “An electric moral tale,” enthused The New York Times.
The Alabama was headed to Mombassa, where it was to deliver to East African nations a critical cargo of expensive humanitarian aid paid for by the UN World Food Program.
It later was established that the container vessel was boarded between 24o to 380 miles offshore of Somalia (contemporary accounts still differ), even though maritime safety groups in the days prior to the incident issued more than a half dozen warnings that ships should stay at least 600 miles from the failed state’s coast due to a spate of brazen attacks.
The U.S. captain, Richard Phillips, knew of those warnings before the pirate boarding; various crewmembers later claimed that they were keep in the dark.
Phillips’ memoirs, which became the basis for the movie to be released Friday in the United States, related his offering himself to his captors in return for the container vessel’s 20-member crew being unharmed (and then surviving five days in a lifeboat as a hostage before his dramatic rescue), thus burnishing his legendary role as a national (re: U.S.) hero.
However, even before the promotional round of private screenings of Captain Phillips ended, other voices forced themselves onto the stage—including those of former crew who claim Phillips actually put their lives at risk and who, as a group, reportedly sought $50 million from Maersk in damages. (A trial is scheduled on the demands of nine of the original 11 seeking payment this December in Mobile, Alabama. Two others have since settled in a case based on charges that Maersk has unceasingly called “meritless.”)
If Phillips was a hero during the actually boarding by maritime marauders, these seamen-cum-critics claimed, it was he who ignored warnings to stay away from the pirate-clogged waters of East Africa, brushing off the threat in order to increase the bottom line for the bosses.
In the mix of judicial and public relations tit-for-tat, the kind of artistic license often both necessary and expected for truly blockbuster films has found itself paraded on the plank.
Phillips himself told the Boston Globe that the movie based on his book, in the reporter’s words, takes “liberties with some events while inventing others, although not to an uncomfortable degree.” (Italics are mine.)
On the other side, representing the plaintiff former crew, attorney Brian Beckcom postulated that the tale toasted by President Obama, Tom Hanks and others was itself invented: “To make [Phillips] into a hero for driving this boat and these men into pirate-infested waters, that’s the real injustice here. The movie tells a highly-fictionalized version of what actually happened.” (Italics are mine.)
Meanwhile, the seeming coronation of Phillips’ role in many corners appears nonetheless undamaged, perhaps most noticeably in popular media.
“The only thing that’s not tragic [in the film’s account] is that Phillip survived his ordeal,” theHuffington Post claimed in an favorable interview with Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass. “[He] said that was his challenge: To present a story where there are no true villains, just villainous circumstances that result in villainous actions.”
No true villains; merely villainous circumstances and actions. A rendition certain to be contested by those who believe evil exists in this world, including perhaps even the real Captain Phillips himself.
“That never entered my mind,” Phillips said in an interview, cited earlier no less in theHuffington Post. “We were always adversaries. I thought it was important to make sure we both knew we were adversaries in that. I thought that was important for me and my survival. There was no Stockholm syndrome.”
The purpose of this essay is not, repeat, not to take sides.
It is, however, meant to caution those debating the intrinsic value of the movie to also hold fast to facts on what really happened on the high seas, and to understand both the promise and the problem that comes with basing policy prescriptions on the arguments of screenplays.
For example, in defense of the real Captain Phillips, one needs to understand that in 2009 the U.S. economy, and thus much of the rest of the world, was in a tailspin, and the often hard-pressed international maritime industry was again feeling the heat. Sympathetic experts point out that Phillips’ decision to remain closer to land might have, had the Alabama not been boarded, saved 1 ½ days of transit time and a significant amount of fuel, not minor points by any means.
Thus, had nothing untoward happened, there are those who would have cheered him for cutting costs at a time the maritime industry—its senior captains as well as lower ranks—desperately sought to protect the bottom line, a critical factor which is arguably also a full-employment question.
In addition, public relations aside, Maersk, as the world’s largest container shipping company and one known for reliable, eco-efficient transport, was at that time justifiably chosen by the UN to help ensure its supply chain system for aid to troubled East African countries.
And finally, in 2009, the response of the international community to the Somali pirate threat was in general still too reactive, with foreign navy coordination still somewhat slipshod. (RADM Terry McKnight, commander of Task Force 151, went on record early that year saying that his biggest concern remained “deconfliction and and coordination”) At the same time, the possibility of reputable shipping companies to contract quality Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs) remained on the horizon, particularly as their worth was at the time still under debate in Washington, D.C.
Apart from whatever is the judgment of the Mobile court in the current case brought against Maersk, today the real Captain Phillips seems to in many ways embody what the late novelist Norman Mailer, in his famous essay “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” called the “existential hero
a hero [who] embodies his time and is not so very much better than his time, but
is larger than life and so is capable of giving direction to the time.”
Argue as you will whether Phillips did wrong before the pirates boarded; his own heroism was clearly related to his accepting responsibility when face-to-face with danger, to the point that he was willing to possibly trade his life to save those of his mates.
Related to this is what sociologists call the “routinization of charisma,” that is, the transformation of charismatic authority—the power legitimized by a leader’s exceptional personal qualities which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers (a maritime captain’s role, if you will)—into some other basis of authority, such as tradition or the authority of office.
In the case of Captain Phillips, this routinization (the expression dates to German sociologist Max Weber’s classic writings on the sociology of religion) refers not to the flesh-and-blood mortal (the real Captain Phillips) who actually lived the tale in the Gulf of Aden, but rather to the actor—Tom Hanks—whose very presence brings to the story a universal standing.
Not only a phenomenal actor (and his own best public relations specialist), Hanks throughout his career has ably brought public service and messages of necessary social change to his screen performances, most notably during his previous incarnations on film in stories ranging from that of Philadelphia and A League of Their Own, to Private Ryan, Apollo 13, and his narration of Boatlift – An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience.
(The cautious, however, will also no doubt remember that Hollywood was not only capable of stirring consciousness of the need for important moral changes in the American public through tales such as that of 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. Most chillingly, modern American cinema was born on the backs of retrograde philosophers such those of the Klu Klux Klan, particularly in early hate-born black-and-white movies and cult promotion such as Birth of a Nation.)
Lucky for Captain Phillips, the story brought to life by Tom Hanks—whether all facts or mixed with fiction—is one that deserves to be seen and debated. It is particular vision that can help bring to the fore the importance of the maritime industry (particularly the U.S. Merchant Marine) and the challenges both those at the helm and who serve as part of the crew face while manning international trade here and on distant shores.
Finally, even as movie goers are mesmerized by the portrayal by Hanks and his co-stars of the lives and emotions of mariners held captive by Somali pirates, it would also be helpful to remember for a moment the trials and tribulations of those commercial seafarers who increasing face maritime marauders off the coast of West Africa.
In an excellent essay entitled “Nigeria’s oil pillage crisis,” Business Day’s Obadiah Mailafia provided a critical insight into a problem characteristic of much of the counter-piracy challenge in that region (a question also laudably addressed in recent weeks by Piracy Daily columnistsJohn A.C. Cartner and Ric Hedlund).
“When we accept criminality as part of the natural order of things, we create an atmosphere where lawlessness becomes the accepted norm. The death of public reason often presages the death of the rule of law, which in turn paves the way for the death of free republics.”
The movie addressing that vital maritime question surely has yet to be crafted.
Hopefully the lessons learned by the real Captain Phillipses in the Gulf of Aden, and their artistic representations in Hollywood and elsewhere, will help to make that story a happier one when it makes its own debut.
© Martin Edwin Andersen, 2013, all rights reserved. “Between ‘Captain Sparrow” and “Captain Phillips”: Pirate Claims and Public Interest in Hollywood,” may be copied and distributed with attribution to Martin Edwin Andersen, and Piracy Daily.
The Editor-in-Chief of Piracy Daily, Andersen is also the author of “Flags of TheirStepfathers? Race and Culture in the Context of Military Service and the Fight for Citizenship,” part of Eastwood’s Iwo Jima: Critical Engagements With Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Anne Gjelsvik and Rikke Schubart (eds.), Columbia University Press, 2013.