It’s good to be the superpower: “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking”

Captain Phillips, based on the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking by Somali pirates, is perfect fodder for Paul Greengrass. Over the course of his decade-long film career, Paul Greengrass has staked his claim on a trademark steadicam filming technique and ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter. The political subject matter married to his technique give his work a feeling of “shaky-cam immediacy,” an attempt to emulate the feeling and gravitas of live reporting. Greengrass loves filming people in front of screens, cutting between communications nodes, coördinating with commandos ready for action.

Like United 93, based on the story of “the flight that fought back,” or Green Zone, based on journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s chronicle of the administration of post-conquest Iraq, Captain Phillips has the imprimatur of real-life relevance. Like United 93, it tells a War on Terror story that contains a triumphant ending in a conflict that lacks clear victories. Like Green Zone, though, it tells that story with a hint of nuance and an effort to humanize its enemies—though not criticism.

Greengrass manages to bring a degree of humanity to all the participants in Captain Phillips, opening the film with a goodbye between Phillips and his wife before transitioning to Somalia. The men conscripted for the Maersk Alabama hijacking from their Puntland village include the tactical leader, Barkhad Abdi’s Muse and three others. The journey for the four hijackers doesn’t begin with any kind of choice on their part, it’s the invisible hand, holding a Kalashnikov at the behest of whatever local capo wants to replenish the coffers of his coastal fiefdom. Muse, like Phillips, is a man on the clock.

Muse is also someone who falls victim to a situation that rapidly spirals out of his control. The Alabama’s crew hides in the bowels of the ship and successfully shuts down the vessel’s emergency power, leaving a crew of four hijackers to try to control the entire ship. Consequently, the crew captures Muse and negotiates a trade for Phillips, which goes wrong and leaves Phillips and the four Somalis floating away on a lifeboat, an orange capsule that becomes a coffin.

As the lifeboat inches back to Somalia, the US military apparatus in the region spins up to recover the kidnapped captain. The moments when Muse realizes the forces arrayed against him and his fellow Somalis give Captain Phillips has a humanity that other war films lack. From the orange capsule, Muse gets a look at the three massive warships following him, and the film communicates his awe at the firepower arrayed against him. Operating off of a few details concerning the pirates’s mother ship and general origin, analysts on the USS Bainbridge relay to the pirates’s names and hometown to the negotiator. The moment shocks the hijackers, and gives a hint to the unprecedentedly global reach of the American military intelligence complex.

When the Americans manage to get Muse onto the Bainbridge under the premise of a ransom negotiation, Muse is taken aboard by what are presumably SEALs and corpsmen. The sight of the rail-thin and barely five-foot Muse, standing on the deck of the Bainbridge surrounded by corn-fed hulks with M4s and nineteen-inch biceps is chilling. When Muse tells a bound Phillips that he hopes to make it to New York City someday, the audience knows he will arrive there in chains, bound for a Supermax. Where most directors with access to American military hardware merely venerate its power, Greengrass at least has a willingness to humanize those on the other end of its force. There’s a word in Arabic, taqwa, which carries with it feelings of simultaneous love and fear of God. Unlike a Katheryn Bigelow—someone clearly in love with the US military—Greengrass has taqwa towards it, a love of its aesthetics with an understanding of how terrifying the apparatus’s power is.

Still, despite the undertones of nuance, this is a triumphal American story. Greengrass may show Somalis as humans (unlike Black Hawk Down), but American power is a co-star. Reflecting Truffaut’s dictum that it’s impossible to make an anti-war movie because the aesthetics of combat are too compelling, Greengrass makes the war machine look really cool. Navy SEALs HALO jumping from a C-130, naming the hijackers based on a few scraps of information, and the exquisite feat of synchronized marksmanship that ends the standoff are all really cool.

The awesome killing power of America’s tier-one operators caused even Rachel Maddow to gush that the events were “riveting,” and had Americans “brushing up on our ‘how freakin’ impressive are US Navy SEALs’-ology.” The performance of SEAL Team 6 in ending the Maersk Alabama hijacking that first attracted President Obama’s attention to that unit’s abilities. Telling a Somalia story beginning with this hijacking also elides what created piracy in the first place.

At one point, Muse hints at the desperation that lead to them bobbing in the Indian ocean. When the pirate mother ship describes itself to the Alabama‘s bridge as the “Somali Coast Guard,” that’s not as absurd as it may sound. Many of the men who would eventually resort to piracy were initially fisherman, whose territory was illegally overfished or polluted with toxic waste by foreign companies following the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1993. The destitute fisherman initially militarized to protect their waters, before many turned to more extreme measures. One of the least-known stories of the War on Terror is how the US crushed the moderate Islamic Courts Union, creating the chaos that emboldened the extremist al Qaeda-affiliate al Shabab and continues today. The Maersk Alabama story, even told with humanity towards the Somalis, erases a lot of this history and creates a triumphalist American narrative.

The 2012 Danish film A Hijacking (Kapringen), written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, begins like Captain Phillips but follows a different tack. The film opens with the ship’s cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) talking to his wife and establishing the family connections of the imperiled sailor. After briefly following life on the ship, the film cuts to the shipping company CEO Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) back in Denmark. When the audience first sees him, Ludvigsen is engaged in negotiations with a Japanese corporation over a shipping contract. In this negotiation, Ludvigsen demonstrates poker-faced forebearance and a willingness to leave the table that serve as a template for what’s to come.

Where Captain Phillips wrings the most thrills possible out of the Alabama’s hijacking—the pinging of the radar as the pirate skiffs approach, the tense countermeasures, the thrilling music as the pirates try to hook their boarding ladder—the capture in A Hijacking occurs off-screen. Lindholm’s film unfolds over the course of many months, as the crew fight boredom and the pirates negotiate with Copenhagen. In both films, all sides stress that what is transpiring is a business transaction, though A Hijacking portrays the grinding, agonizing steps involved in seeing such a deal come to fruition.

The difference between the two hijackings goes to illustrate what a difference a superpower makes. The Maersk Alabama hijacking brought modern-day piracy into the public consciousness, but it followed years of successful ship ransoms. Typically, a foreign crew sailing under a third country’s flag would be held for numerous months and be released for a few million dollars following the laborious negotiations depicted in A Hijacking. Captain Phillips and the real-life events it portrays are a reminder of what kind of power the US is willing to deploy to maintain its unchallenged global supremacy. In the words of Madeleine Albright, “what’s the point of having this superb military…if we’re never going to use it?” Every other country has to talk their way out of things, even a NATO ally like Denmark. Not us!