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Protectors of the 'Failed State': 'Captain Phillips' and the Intrigue of Somali Pirates

[Still image from [Still image from "Captain Phillips."]

Captain Phillips. Directed by Paul Greenglass. USA, 2013.

Appearing in US theaters in mid-October, Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greenglass, has been a smash at box offices, grossing nearly one hundred million dollars in its first several weeks. Greengrass’ cinematic style is perhaps best known from his direction of The Bourne Trilogy, as well as United 93, a film depicting the airline that crashed in Stoneycreek Township, Pennsylvania on 9/11. Tackling the subject of Somali pirates, Captain Phillips is supremely ambitious in treading into the murky depths of the West’s long-strained relations with Somalia. It conjures a slew of images reminiscent of blockbusters such as Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty. Such imagery serves to depict Captain Phillips as a Christ-like figure, in contrast to the existentialist threats of the Somali pirates.

The depiction of Phillips as savior in the film elides the reasons for military and humanitarian interventions in Somalia. In doing so, it violently glosses over the multifaceted array of other evils polluting the waters off the Horn of Africa, such as those of the neoliberal phantom of the global shipping industry, the complicity of humanitarians in recent conflicts on the continent, and the origins of terrorism in the region. Phillips represents the intervener as savior, in contrast to the pirates portayed in the film, who symbolize both the child-soldier and the merciless terrorist.

Captain Phillips is an adaptation of the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship. In the film, Greengrass’ camera focuses upon the hero character of Captain Richard Phillips. This focus comes at the expense of the rest of his crew (whose tale may be better told by the directors of A Hijacking, a Danish film on an identical topic). In what is perhaps its only depiction of the protagonist as a fully-rounded human being, the film opens with a scene of Phillips driving to the airport with his wife, who expresses frustration about the continuing difficulties created by his long trips overseas. Upon arrival, Captain Phillips commands his crew with grandeur and finesse, immediately establishing order on the ship. This portrayal comes in contrast to that of Somali Captain Abdi Wali Abdulqadir Muse, whose recruitment of “pirates” for his mission quickly evokes fissures between individuals and clans. The movie is a suspenseful battle of wits between Phillips and Muse (which is won almost completely by Phillips).

In one respect, the film conjures up images of humanitarianisms on the continent, such as UNOSOM’s Operation Restore Hope and Save Darfur in Sudan. Such efforts are personified in a barefoot, skinny youngster named Bilal, the only sympathetic pirate portrayed in the film. Bilal badly injures his foot after Phillips’ crewmembers throw shards of a glass bottle in an effort to throw the pirates off their trail. While Phillips wraps Bilal’s wound, he whispers to the pirate so that Bilal’s comrades, whose characters are represented as purely malevolent, cannot hear him: “How old are you, anyway? Sixteen? Seventeen?” This action echoes an exclamation later in the film by Captain Muse upon recognizing yet another of Phillips’ deceptions on the ship: “They’re treating us like children!” This infantilization of the pirates echoes the airdrops of aid in the United States’ interventions in Africa to rifle-wielding child soldiers; famine-stricken, fly-ridden babies; and mothers grasping the stark skeletons of their offspring.

In reference to the humanitarianism versus “War on Terror” paradox in countries such as Somalia, Laura Hammond writes:

The distinction here between the confusion of the recipients and the motivations of the attackers must be unpacked for the two may have very little to do with one another. The trope of confusion can be found in nearly every account of military/humanitarian interaction. It is this confusion that is most often blamed for the increasing vulnerability of, and corresponding presumed rise in violent attacks against, aid workers.[1]

This seeming irony is most clearly portrayed in the contrast between Bilal and Muse. Among the most degrading of Captain Phillips’ ploys to trick Muse is his statement that the ship is bringing food to “starving children in Africa.” Muse replies, “I don’t want your food. I want your money!” The exchange exemplifies the disconnect between Phillips’ notion of these men as terrorist child soldiers and the belief, held by some Somalis, that these so-called pirates in fact represent a kind of Somali coast guard. Furthermore, the film depicts the mindset held by many Americans amidst the Black Hawk Down operation, as depicted in its namesake film, that the presence of al-Shabaab fighters and figures such as General Aidid ultimately led to the depletion of American aid efforts. As Mary Harper suggests:

The US/UN military intervention of the 1990s was probably the most dramatic example of “getting Somalia wrong.” It represented the archetypal wrong-headed exercise in building a state with foreign soldiers and good intentions; the more recent examples of Iraq and Afghanistan suggest lessons from this fiasco still have not been learned.[2]

The notion that some Somalis may use food aid for purposes other than “good” (such as providing it to unsavory militias), or that they may refuse it altogether, simply does not fit into an essentialist Western humanitarian rhetoric. Robed in the guise of savior, Phillips appears to subscribe to such a narrative, stating that the pirates are “not just fishermen” seeking to feed their families. The pirates appear as savages—as oafs who continuously fall for the captain’s tricks and deceptions. When the crew manages to capture Muse temporarily at the start of the film, he declares, “I love America!” inducing a roar of laughter from the audience.

Accordingly, Captain Phillips dresses, perhaps unintentionally, its pirate paper dolls in the “War on Terror” narrative. Harper writes that Somalia has become the “African Iraq, the African Afghanistan.” Many Western states, and the United States in particular, have lumped Somalis in with other residents of the slew of “failed states” that the West has relegated to its pile of hopeless rubbish-peoples. What the film neglects to depict are the other terrorist bugaboos that burden the people of Somalia—particularly those in the coastland communities such as Eyl and other Puntland towns. Amina Mire suggests that nuclear dumping and illegal fishing in fact serve precisely as forms of “environmental terrorism.”[3] Stolen Seas, a documentary tackling the issue of Somali piracy from a much more nuanced perspective, discusses how the catch-all category of “good governance,” often applied by Western powers as an antidote to failed states, is an unrealistic solution. Since the collapse of the central government in Somalia with the fall of dictator Siad Barre, there has scarcely been enough by way of formal institutions to provide sufficient economic means for the Somali people. As Thomas Keating argues, the Puntland region has become a hotbed for piracy in part due to its relative political stability—a factor that he notes is key to providing a viable environment for producing organized crime.[4]

Naturally, Western-construed “bad guys” could not be portrayed as such without heroes—and, ultimately, the saviors of the day are not Captain Phillips but the ripped and ready US Navy Seals. Andrew O’Hehir articulates this best in his film review, writing that, “[Greenglass’] portrayal of the enormous United States military operation to free Phillips from his captors has the calm technological blankness of a Navy commercial, without the 1970s waka-waka guitar.” The blinding light of Seal-wielding helicopters, and a final scene in which a calm and kindly military doctor treats a traumatized Phillips who can only repeat desperately, “Thank you…thank you,” passes over the work of the crew in freeing their captain.

Meanwhile, Kaiser Matsumunyane is releasing a film entitled The Smiling Pirate, which provides an alternative account of Somali piracy to that of Captain Phillips by focusing on the real-life Muse. The title refers to Muse’s seemingly happy state when US authorities finally made their arrest before a number of journalists. When asked about his expression, he replied that he “was confused as to what was happening and he looked around to see what they were taking photos of until he realized that those people were taking photos of him. He says it was funny seeing all those people interested in him and smiled.”

Perhaps US audiences have found the figure of the pirate so intriguing because of its representation of a “failed state” so scarcely understood. In Somalia, the West has, however, left behind a gaping hole of violence from its interventions and hurried exits. US viewers may look upon these characters and see merely ruthless al-Shabaab fighters, or those among a flock of children who never wanted to be saved. In doing so, they would fail to see the round figure of an African boy whose life took a turn he likely never expected. Captain Phillips merely flattens such characters—merging a UNICEF poster with a kind of terrorist nightmare.


[1] Laura Hammond, “The Power of Holding Humanitarianism Hostage and the Myth of Protective Principles,” in Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss (eds.), Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. 176.

[2] Mary Harper, Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War, and Hope in a Shattered State. New York: Zed Books, 2012. 153-155.

[3] Amina Mire, “The Militarization of Somalia and the Geopolitics of War on Sea Piracy,” in Ulf Johansson Dahre (ed.) The Role of Democratic Governance versus Sectarian Politics in Somalia. Lund: Somalia International Rehabilitation Centre and Lund Horn of Africa Forum, 2011. 177.

[4] Thomas Keating, “The Political Economy of Somali Piracy,” SAIS Review of International Affairs 33 (2013). 185-191.

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