Plato once likened leading a nation to commanding a ship. In the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips, the ship he helms as the title character is a cargo freighter. As an actor, Hanks took up where Jimmy Stewart left off in the role of most decent man in America years ago. Recently he polled ahead of the President as the most trusted. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that in his turn as Phillips, Hanks manages to sound more like John F. Kennedy than the real Captain Phillips who, though born and bred in Boston, has an accent nowhere near as thick as Hanks’ impersonation.
In the Hollywood version of the true story of the Maersk Alabama, Hanks is captaining not just a ship, but a ship of state. The large and prosperous freighter loaded down with consumer goods lumbers through the waterways just off the coast of some of the world’s most impoverished countries. The small skiffs the Somali pirates use to beset the behemoth appear out of the nowhere of a deep blue sea as suddenly as the planes that approached the twin towers out of a clear September sky.
Director Paul Greengrass previously made United 93 based on the events inside the third plane of the 9/11 attacks in which the everyday heroism of its passengers forced the hijacked plane out of the sky. Here Phillips has to be heroic but doesn’t pay with his life. Instead, he finds himself freed from the all-too-human Somalis who literally have nothing to lose by an impersonal force of Navy SEALs in an outcome as inevitable as the American firepower is overwhelming. While grateful, Phillips is too decent not to see that the story is tragic and that the solution solves nothing. In the end, Hanks might not be channeling JFK but rather his predecessor Ike who made his farewell speech into a warning about the rise of the military-industrial complex that is now bigger and badder than ever.
Ships loom large in the popular imagination as microcosms of the social condition. The Costa Concordia that ran afoul of rocks off the Italian coast as its captain allegedly was distracted by his lover, a dancer from Moldova, struck a chord in a country that saw its Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi brought down by a scandal in which he paid for sex with an underage Moroccan dancer. And in a metaphor made to order for Italy where heartbreaking beauty no longer compensates for economic stagnation, the ugly remains of the cruise ship that blight one of world’s loveliest settings now represent an engineering nightmare as salvage companies work to right it so it can be stripped for scrap. Ultimately, the Costa Concordia may well end up off the coast of India or Bangladesh where barefoot ship breakers tear apart beached hulls of scrapped ships by hand, at great risk to themselves and to the ocean which will absorb the toxic residues of the engines and internal linings.
Like the enormous container ships that span as much as four football fields in length, some cruise ships are now so large that critics wonder whether like banks deemed “too big to fail” these liners are “too big to sail.” The high seas, like high finance, require running risks in our age but ships sometimes founder, their captains can’t always be counted on, and the pirates are real.