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What Oscar Forgot: The Economics behind Greengrass' Captain Phillips

February 1, 2014

series of posts on films that possibly deserved more consideration than they received:



I don't know what people wrote about the film when it first came out in the early fall, and I don't know what people are writing about it now. I know a fall issue of The New Yorker sits in my bathroom opened to a review of the film, but I have yet to read it. On top of that opened New Yorker is about a year's worth of unopened New Yorkers--I don't know how anyone really "reads" The New Yorker. I also did not see this film in theaters. I saw it last night, at home, and I woke up this morning thinking about it.

Initially, in the fall, I wanted to see this film on the big screen. Part of that want, granted, was a nostalgic need to see Tom Hanks as live and as large and as wholesome as my 1990s childhood. Tom Hanks, and a movie featuring Tom Hanks, is supposed to make the audiences that participate in the Tom Hanks Movie-Going Experience feel good about themselves and about being American. And, as cynical as I sometimes am, I want to feel good about myself, and because I'm American, feeling good about myself can only be aided by feeling good about my nationality. Captain Phillips, as part of the Tom Hanks Movie-Going Experience, does not feel entirely wholesome--it makes one think and interpret way too much about life's great lotteries for that.

Now, I admit that describing a film nominated for six Academy Awards as "what Oscar forgot" may be a bit of unnecessary hyperbole on my part, but let's consider what exactly the Academy found worth recognizing about the film: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay. Evidently, the film's merits as a Best Picture nominee rest on the fact that it sounded good booming through loud speakers, which tells you and I everything we need to know about the film's Best Picture chances. However, the nomination of Barkhad Abdi for Best Supporting Actor and the film's nomination for Best Screenplay suggest that underneath all the ricocheting gunshots and bursting radio waves there was something else happening in the undercurrents of the film.

Director Paul Greengrass is best known for his work in the Bourne series, but his heart lies in films such as 2002's Bloody Sunday, where he creates incredible moments of tension between the British colonizers and the colonized Irish. The film is shot in a claustrophobic manner, relying on tight shots that make one feel the pressures of living or soldiering in Northern Ireland during "the troubles." The threat of violence is always imminent, always urgent, and Captain Phillips relies on much the same atmosphere, only the tight shots open up on the vastness of the sea, creating a juxtaposition between the space of the ocean and the interpellation of everyday life. In Bloody Sunday, Greengrass moves between the Irish and British perspectives. In Captain Phillips, he moves between the American worker and the Somali worker, before eventually adding the perspective of the American military. However, by the time the film thrusts the might of America's Navy--its maritime power demonstrated through great, sweeping aerial shots--onto the big screen, the film's audience has become engrossed in feeling sympathy for the film's two captains: one an American played by Tom Hanks and the other a Somali played by Barkhad Abdi.

In the subtleties of Greengrass' world, the colonial economics of capitalism, and not the Somali pirates, are the true villains. On one level, this complexity avoids the racist reduction of black pirates attacking white sailors before a largely white American film audience. On another level, however, perhaps the sight of pirates motor boating in the wake of an American flag, chasing the riches of American empire on the high open sea, is far too subtle.


Perhaps audiences and the Academy did not notice how Captain Phillips in the film's opening scene fears that competition for jobs has become so intense that his son may not prosper on tomorrow's seas, that he has an inborn fear that his son could be fated by an ever evolving competition for jobs to beg for a living wage, to beg like the Somali villagers on the beaches of Africa's Horn for a chance to pirate, for a chance to survive. "Do I look like a beggar?" asks Muse (played by Abdi), and the answer is paradoxically yes and no.

The relationship between Phillips and Muse is complex. Both are captains, but each captain has a boss who resides somewhere much safer and much more confined than international waters. One captain comes from a nation desperate to save him, and the other from a nation that abandons even its desperation. "Everything gonna be okay," says Muse, and the line slackens from hard intimidation to wavering doubt as the film progresses. First, Muse is to be respected, then feared, and, finally, to be pitied. And one has to wonder if the only person who gets this revealing--for it is something different than a transformation--is Captain Phillips, who when asked in the film's closing scenes, "Is all the blood yours?" responds in relieved shock and horror, "Not mine."

Greengrass and Hanks could say the same about this year's Oscars, but  to a greater extent, so could all those desperate Somalians about the cold fate geography and economics have dealt them in this world: not mine. The Academy's neglect to nominate Greengrass for Best Director and Hanks for Best Actor is perhaps evident that America is still not ready to look outward to the world and to see it without national borders and national economies that so often result in clear winners and losers and so often pit the American worker against the workers of the world, rather than uniting them in common cause. The fact that a much funnier film, American Hustle, which exists solely within the spheres of American imagination, consciousness, and experience, has garnered more "Oscar momentum" and more prestigious nominations suggests perhaps that both the Academy and American audiences may still not be ready to enter into a real dialogue about economic systems and the us vs. them binaries they create.

But don't worry about that, 'cause "everything going to be okay," right?


Bryan Harvey can be followed @LawnChairBoys.

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