Sites of production become mobile, while paths of distribution become fixed and routine. Factories are now like ships: they mutate strangely, masquerade, and sometimes sale away stealthily in the night, in search of cheaper labor, leaving their former employees bewildered and jobless . . . The contemporary maritime world offers little in the way of reassuring and nostalgic anthropomorphism, but surrenders instead to the serial discipline of the box . . . The container is the very coffin of remote labor power, bearing the hidden evidence of exploitation in the far reaches of the world. -Allan Sekula, Freeway to China
I watched two films this week that featured containerization though the specific role of the container is oblique. This makes sense since the whole point of containerization is to move products of global capitalism in invisible form. Oceans are the delivery system for commodities made in countries too poor to fight for unions or a deserving living wage. Dolls, TVs, cell phones and sneakers are packed into anonymous orange and blue containers, loaded onto ships and then sent to the United States where consumers miraculously find these goods lining the shelves of Best Buy and Walmart.
Both Captain Phillips and All Is Lost are stories of American Men against the Container Economy. They are both heroic tales of men at risk by the forces of a system that could give a rat’s ass about them. One of the movies – Captain Phillips – is a Hollywood exercise in exploitive truth-bending heroism, an action movie pretending to be politically sensitive. The other – All Is Lost – is a minimalist parable that resurrects American Naturalism showing man’s struggle in the indifferent face of both economics and nature.
Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks (King of Hollywood Middle Brow Dreck) is an outright lie and piece of patriotic propaganda which manipulates the real story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama container ship hijacking by Somali pirates. The movie creates a story of heroism of both the American captain and the military apparatus that saved him while leaving three Somalis dead and smearing the screen with an outright lie. The real Captain Phillips was no hero. He did nothing to save his crew. In fact his penny-pinching loyalty to the system put his crew at risk. He insisted on sailing closer to the African coast through the straights where piracy was rampant simply to cut costs. He was an arrogant, insensitive, union-busting asshole.
Hollywood reinvented him, however, as a self-sacrificing working dad looking out for family and crew. Putting all the lies aside, it is possible to pull some interesting material out of the film in the first twenty minutes before it descends into utter Hollywood crap.
The film opens in the Phillips’ cozy home while he and his wife prepare to drive to the airport where the Captain will take off for a job driving a container ship around the Horn of Africa. The two talk about worrying about their boys having to fend for themselves in an economy where there are so few jobs in the United States (e.g. a result of the global economy where jobs have been outsourced to places like Indonesia and Dubai). They talk about how everyone is desperate for work and that there are not enough jobs to employee those who need one. Phillips says, “50 qualified people fight for the same job, but only one will get it.” It seems to be that estimate is low. It is my experience that often HUNDREDS of people are fighting for the same job.
This scene cuts immediately to Somalia where a pirate operation plans their next hijack of a container ship. The scene is directly out of a United Nations propaganda video. We see the stark difference in living situations – the cozy well-kept home of Captain Phillips versus the empty garage where a Somali sleeps on the cement floor. Hundreds of men crowd the beach desperate to get picked for the “job” of hijacking the ship. In other words, back in the US men fight for the same job on Wall Street while in Somalia men fight for the same job hijacking the ship that delivers the commodities to the US that those who are lucky enough to be employed can buy. Clever Hollywood. The Somalis all chant, “We want money.” And “money” is the word they utter more than any other in the film. At least the Somalis outwardly state they want “money.” Clearly Captain Phillips also wants “money,” but he prefers to couch it in terms of honor and duty.
The movie then cuts to overhead shots of the Maersk shipyard where hundreds of containers of commodities that have been built by dirt cheap labor are ready to be shipped to the United States. This is the invisible force that connects the two seemingly dissimilar worlds of Captain Phillips and the Somalis. They are both driven by the global economy in which capital is moved on the seas in containers, and in a way, they are both employed by the same system. Captain Phillips drives the ships, and the Somalis hijack them.
Once the ship sets sail and the Somalis follow it into the sea, the film rapidly disintegrates into standard Hollywood Fare. Though Global Capitalism and the container industry that moves its products connects these two sets of people – the men who work on the ship and the men who hijack it – I doubt the “everyday audience” is going to make that connection. The movie wasn’t made to be an exposé on containerization. It was made to create an American hero who sacrifices everything, endures a terrifying ordeal at the hands of armed black men, and comes out alive.
The movie isn’t about the politics of Somalia, America’s political presence in that country, or the inhumane practice of the global economy. It is a Tom Hanks vehicle (see movie poster) made to sell a lot of tickets and win some awards. This means that we get multiple shots of Hanks’ stoic yet suffering face interspersed with countless action scenes, frenetic Somali dialogue and gun waving, and more action scenes. We get close-ups of the very black, very sweaty, confused, desperate and threatening Somalis. The camera focuses on the staring whites of their eyes, apparently in an attempt to be sympathetic. But then we get the great Deus Ex Machina — the US military who delivers Navy ships, Navy SEALS, and assassination teams to save the day and Captain Phillips’ deserving ass while blowing the whites right out of those Somali eyes.
The film attempts to be sympathetic to the Somalis because Hollywood does attempt to appease the liberal audience by making politically sensitive and correct films. But Hollywood is an industry, and this is a film made for an American audience. Its product is a hero who is a lie. It’s about Tom Hanks enduring this ordeal and making it out alive with the blood of his captors splattered over his traumatized body (Jesus Christ!), so everyone can applaud his heroism as the credits roll. For the record, I did not applaud. In fact, I always cheered for the Somali pirates in real life and on the screen.
While Captain Phillips is excessively gratuitous, All Is Lost is excessive in its austere minimalism. It is a painstakingly minimal and quiet approach to containerization and heroism. A pared-down parable about the random indifference of global capital and the process of survival, the movie stars Robert Redford who is the only actor on screen. He is sailing in the Indian Ocean when his boat is hit by a random container. The container cuts a hole into the hull of the boat. Sneakers made in China spill into the ocean, and the film follows the aftermath of this random and haunting event.
As in tales like Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and other stories of American Naturalism that rose out of the Industrial Revolution, Redford is never given a name. The entire movie is a metaphor for survival in the face of an indifferent and inhumane economy. Nature becomes metaphor for uncontrollable forces of mankind that will toss a man to his end at a whim. The film plays on the art and literature that rose in the Industrial era, yet it is made for the post-industrial economy. Perhaps it is an ode to all that was lost when American industry and the working class who kept it alive and well died. Certainly that would be within Redford’s cinematic oeuvre.
When Redford fights to keep his ship afloat during a storm, the scenes are gorgeously explosive with nature bulging and churning like naturalist paintings in which storms and bad weather were metaphors for the storm of the Industrial Revolution. We spend 106 minutes watching Redford methodically fight for his life as storms come, and his supplies dwindle. He is turned upside down, tossed about violently, nearly drowns, yet keeps going.
The open expanse of the infinite ocean is both claustrophobic and mind-blowingly infinite. Yet it can spit out a random container of sneakers to bring this heavenly vision to an abrupt halt. In one scene, after days of struggle, a container ship slowly approaches Redford. He desperately waves flares, yet he is invisible to the forces that move this container ship across the ocean. The ship passes him by, just as the economy that drives containerization passes everyone by.
Redford is a captain of his ship just like Phillips. But the only ass he is trying to save is his own, and it is not really clear why except for that he is driven by an innate masculine drive for survival and to prove that he can. Whereas Phillips’ survival is encased in excess and the military apparatus, Redford’s character is an exercise in minimalism and the process of survival.
He methodically goes through the motions not unlike Hemingway’s Nick Adams. Hemingway takes sentences to describe opening a can of food. This movie does the same with film. When Redford loses almost everything, he is left with his lifeboat and a plastic bag with the words “Survival Kit” printed on the side. He rifles through the bag, and it is the same crap made in China that gets shipped across the ocean in containers that were his ultimate doom. A little plastic fishing pole only brings on sharks – both literal and metaphorical. After all, this movie really is an extended poem, a near silent movie whose silence reflects the lost era of Industrial America.
I’m not terribly knowledgeable of the cost of sailing, but I know it’s not cheap to sail a boat across the world, so Redford’s character may seem like a hero, but he is also a product of the economic system. He clearly did well for himself. He writes a note where he says that he tried to be a good guy, but ultimately failed. I guess the final irony is that the economic system is as indifferent to him as it is to everyone else.
There are no Somali pirates in this movie. There are only the quiet forces of nature and capitalism joined in an extended parable of survival in a landscape of hopelessness where a random floating container symbolizes a paradigm shift in economic history that not only changed the landscape of humankind but that of nature itself.
The film’s major flaw is the end where we are given a ray of hope after 106 minutes of the tension between the will for survival and the inevitability of nothingness. It would have been much better if the film let the whole thing sink like its title suggests.
I’ll take All Is Lost over Captain Phillips, but ultimately I would much rather defer to the late Allan Sekula (long-time CounterPuncher and the photographer for Cockburn and St. Clair’s book on the WTO protests: Five Days That Shook the World) for commentary and art about the effects of containerization and global capitalism. His film The Forgotten Space is the last project he completed before he died this past August 2013. And he left a legacy that no Hollywood film can possibly compare to.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.