Yes, Movies 'Can Tell Truths' -- but Does 'Captain Phillips'?

"Movies are not journalism. They're not history. But I really do believe that movies can tell truths. They can tell you what it was like to be there. Or something of what it was like to be there. Something of what the experience felt like. Something of the forces in play. Something of the complexities and dangers of the world."

That, director Paul Greengrass says, is the spirit in which he offers his new film -- Captain Phillips, a tense depiction of the hijacking of the U.S.-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama, the kidnapping of its captain, and the operation that rescued him. Greengrass was speaking at a Washington, D.C., screening of the film last week, and the sentiment he expressed captures the themes of his remarkable movie. The events on which the film is based are by now well-known: In 2009, a band of Somali pirates hijacked the Alabama, eventually kidnapping its captain, Richard Phillips, and making off with him in one of the ship's lifeboats. In a daring operation, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs rescued Phillips from the raft where he was being held by dispatching of his kidnappers with a series of precision sniper shots from a nearby U.S. destroyer. But in trying to capture "something of the complexities and dangers of the world," Greengrass isn't just trying to tell the unbelievable story of how Phillips managed to survive his ordeal. He's also trying to explain why Phillips ended up being held at gunpoint by a bunch of Somali youths in the first place.

The question is whether Greengrass succeeds at that more ambitious undertaking.

The audience meets the film's stars -- Tom Hanks as the captain and Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the pirate gang -- long before they fatefully intersect on the bridge of the Alabama. Beginning in his picturesque Vermont home, the film shows Phillips as he prepares to leave for Dubai and his latest assignment. An old-school guy trying to make sense of a chaotic new world, Phillips tells his wife during the drive to the airport how he worries whether their son will be able to make it out there -- whether he will be able to handle the competition for work in a globalized economy. It's a subtle, if not quite effective, reminder that this is as much a movie about global capitalism as it is a story of survival. Once Phillips has arrived in Dubai and set sail on his massive ship, the focus shifts to the Somali seaside village of Eyl. There, Muse is pressed back into service as a pirate -- informed by his warlord boss that he must return to the ocean and earn his keep. Warily, he rounds up a group of men and heads out to sea.

Quickly, Greengrass manages to shield Captain Phillips from the criticism that it is simply a movie about the noble white man and the savage black pirate, fighting it out to the death on the high seas. Phillips is a lonely clerk in the global economy, moving big metal boxes from one point to another as he sits in his cabin sending emails to his wife a world away -- all while listening to Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight." Muse is a reluctant fighter, not fueled by bloodlust but by his overbearing, menacing commander.

It's through Abdi in his role as Muse that Greengrass tries to elevate the movie (a rookie actor, Abdi was driving a cab in Minneapolis before wandering into an open casting call and landing the role). The bulk of the film plays out in the claustrophobic confines of the lifeboat in which Muse and his men attempt to escape back to Somalia with their hostage (once there they hope to barter him for a fat ransom). Stuck together on the tiny vessel, Muse and Phillips develop something of an odd-couple relationship -- one that paints a mildly humanizing portrait of a Somali pirate. And when the U.S. Navy arrives on the scene, Muse becomes a figure of tragedy. With the mighty USS Bainbridge at his back and miles of sea ahead of him until he reaches Somalia, he has no good options. "I have come too far," a melancholy Muse tells Phillips aboard the lifeboat.

So why is it, exactly, that Muse has come this far? The film gestures at a few answers, but that's where it runs into trouble. Muse briefly mentions that Somalia's once-lucrative fishing grounds have been depleted, leaving him without options. So is this in fact a film about the plight of Somali fishermen? Perhaps -- if the nod toward the depletion of the country's fish stocks didn't feel like a throwaway line. The omnipresence of khat, a leafy stimulant, in the movie doesn't make the rendering of Muse and his crew any more empathetic. The pirates are constantly chewing the drug and bickering over their supply; at times they come across as junkies who are only kidnapping the captain in order to get the cash necessary to land their next khat score. But while Greengrass could have done more to flesh out the inner lives of his Somali pirates -- and forgive me for thinking that a big-budget Hollywood film could ever do such a thing -- the director does inject a subversive undercurrent into the film thanks to some deft writing. "There's gotta be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people," Phillips tells his captor. "Maybe in America," Muse shoots back.

And that's the essence of this film: At the end of the day, this is a movie about America and its wars. Though U.S. anti-piracy efforts off the Somali coast are not formally a part of the war on terror, the U.S. fight against al Qaeda still hovers in the background. "Captain, relax, nobody gets hurt. No al Qaeda here. Just business," Muse tells Phillips. And the Navy SEALs who come to Phillips's rescue have of course become an icon of that fight (killing Osama bin Laden will do that). When these "special operators" -- a loaded term if there ever was one -- arrive on the scene about two-thirds of the way through the film, they immediately take control. With their appearance, the movie shifts from the tense relationship between Phillips and Muse to the kind of footage for which Greengrass is known -- close-up, hand-held, and extremely shaky shots of fast-paced action scenes. And that's really a shame. As soon as the film transitions into thriller mode, Greengrass's lofty ambitions of teasing out the "complexities and dangers of the world" go out the window. Instead, the film finishes as yet another homage to the frightening, awesome killing abilities of America's special forces.

For that reason, the film's release on Friday comes with a delicious irony. Just last weekend, a group of Navy SEALs carried out a snatch-and-grab operation in Somalia that failed miserably, as the SEALs retreated without their target. But Captain Phillips ultimately buys into the myth of America's all-powerful special forces. The subtext in the film is that these men can solve most, if not all, problems: Just hand them guns and set them loose -- they're good shots, so what could go wrong? It's a sentiment that's echoed in Zero Dark Thirty, which depicted the bin Laden raid and implied that most problems in U.S. foreign policy can be solved by suspending the rules and putting a few good men (and maybe one woman) on the case.

At the screening of Captain Phillips in Washington last week, I asked the real Captain Phillips, who was in attendance, what he thought of the bond between the fictional Phillips and his captor. "There was no empathy there. There was no Stockholm syndrome, no concern, no empathy, no sympathy," he told Foreign Policy. "We were on different teams." When I spoke to Phillips he had just gone through the bizarre experience of seeing his own life-or-death struggle immortalized in a Tom Hanks performance. That performance is gritty, intense, and difficult to forget, but apparently far from the actual truth. "It was a lot worse than what the movie showed, so it wasn't really too hard to watch," Phillips said.

Therein lies the problem. The actual truth -- of Phillips's experience, of conditions in Somalia, of the ability of U.S. special forces -- is cast aside in the film. To use Greengrass's formulation, Captain Phillips conveys "something of what it was like to be there."

For Hollywood, that's probably good enough.


This Man Decides Whether Russians Consume Moldovan Wine, Lithuanian Cheese, and Ukrainian Chocolate

You may not have heard of Gennady Onishchenko, but if his own accounts are to be believed, he's the Russian government official who single-handedly averts major public health crises posed by foreign countries' dangerously lax and unsophisticated food safety standards (including those in a certain country where the federal government has ground to a halt). To others, Onishchenko, Russia's chief sanitary inspector, is also Russia's chief manufacturer of elaborate food safety scares to wage geopolitically motivated trade wars with other countries, particularly former Soviet republics.

On Wednesday, Onishchenko, the director of Rospotrebnadzor, Russia's consumer-protection agency, announced a ban on 28 Georgian alcoholic products, a mere seven months after a 2006 ban on Georgian beverages was lifted. Earlier this week, he added Lithuanian dairy products to the long list of (mostly) ex-Soviet state-made products that ostensibly threaten Russian consumers. Further down on that list are Ukrainian chocolates, Moldovan wine, and -- yes -- meat from the United States. Notably, many of these bans came on the heels of warming trade relations between the banned countries and NATO or the European Union -- moves that aren't popular with the Kremlin, which is trying to strong-arm its neighbors into joining a Russian-led customs union.

Onishchenko feels strongly about the value of eating Russian food -- and only Russian food. At a press briefing earlier this year, he implored Russians to suppress their hankering for foreign foods in favor of "food patriotism."

"We put our faith in the high level of consciousness and food patriotism of our citizens, the ones who have long abandoned the use of such food in their diet," he said.

This "food patriotism" was undoubtedly at the root of Onishchenko's war on hamburgers last year, when he reminded Russians that hamburgers "are not a good choice of meal for residents of Moscow and of Russia. This is not our cuisine."

Onishchenko has repeatedly denied that his agency's bans on foreign products are politically motivated, but the circumstances surrounding the prohibitions suggest otherwise. Take the case of this year's ban on the Ukrainian confectionary company Roshen; Onishchenko was supposedly concerned about carcinogens found in milk chocolate -- but only in the chocolate produced in Ukraine, not in the company's two factory locations in other countries. The ban also came in September, after a major dust-up between Russia and Ukraine over gas pipelines and in the run-up to November's Eastern Partnership summit, where Ukraine may sign a free trade agreement with the EU. If Kiev signs the agreement, the government will decline membership in the Russian-led Eurasian customs union.

Similarly, this week's renewed ban on Georgian drinks does not apply to the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, where the product's quality apparently "remains stable."

The reasoning behind the Roshen chocolate ban may have been flawed, but it was at least easier to understand than the vague non-reasoning Onishchenko offered for the Lithuanian dairy ban. "Nobody knows exactly what indications Russian customs have or what the reasons are for the sanctions," Arturas Paulauskas, the head of the Lithuanian parliament's National Security and Defense Committee, told Reuters in a statement.

Moldova was similarly bewildered when Russia announced a ban on Moldovan wines and spirits in September. "We will have to clarify where technical problems about the quality of Moldovan wine end and where the political aspects begin," Economy Minister Valerii Lazar told Reuters.

Through it all, Onishchenko has clung steadfastly to his claim that the bans are a necessity for Russian consumers -- while still glossing over the particulars of his concerns. "The [Moldova] ban is a necessary step that we have undertaken reluctantly, but it is the only possible way of solving the present situation," he told Interfax news agency. "There have been violations in technical preparation, storage, and end production."

Perhaps nothing irks Onishchenko more than wine made in Georgia -- also the country with which Russia arguably has the most strained relationship. At a June press conference held when the original 2006 ban on Georgian wine and mineral water ended this year, he flew off the handle about the (pretty standard) practice of making wine from grapes. The Georgians "are destroying grapes by making wine from it," he complained. "Grapes are a holy fruit, a fruit from God, worshipped by pagans and Christians alike, and they make alcohol from it!" When the conversation turned to Georgian mineral water, he waxed nostalgic, warning reporters that the Georgian import would not taste like it did back in Soviet days.

At times, Onishchenko's public health opinions align rather neatly with the Kremlin's domestic needs. In 2011, for instance, he issued warnings about the health dangers, including exposure to the flu and even SARS, of participating in massive protests in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square against parliamentary elections and Vladimir Putin's party.

It's not unusual, of course, for countries to wield trade restrictions as a weapon in punishing or arm-twisting geopolitical adversaries. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a food safety inspector out there with as much geopolitical clout as Russia's foreign food czar.