Thursday, 31 October 2013

The gospel of grey

Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, is an intense cinema experience, perfectly paced, provoking, wasting no time on anything extraneous or gratuitous, but celebrating one man's quiet diplomacy, bravery and humanity in a situation which all sailors have at one time or another come to dread: piracy.

It is the true story of an attack on an American cargo ship, by Somali pirates, the kidnap of the Captain, and his eventual dramatic rescue by US special forces. Commenting on its making, Tom Hanks observed Hollywood is generally interested in black and white, the victory of good over evil; but this film deals in greys, which is much more interesting.

Part of the 'grey' is created in initial scenes as we see Somalis in their dirt poor, dry and dusty makeshift homes, trying to scratch a living fishing. Volunteers are required for a planned hijack - the strongest and bravest only. As one of the actors comments later, we must remember that Somalis are the progeny of a decade of war - schooling is hard to come by, poverty endemic, there's 'nothing to live for'. Fuelled by machismo and promises of big money, four young men set out with automatic weapons for the high seas and a rendezvous with Captain Phillips' ship, Alabama.

Simultaneously, In a very different part of the world, Captain Phillips is setting out from his comfortable Vermont home, for a plane journey which will take him to Oman and thence to the horn of Africa. 'It gets harder each time', his wife and he agree, these long, potentially dangerous trips away from home. She worries about the world, which is changing rapidly. There's an ominous strain in their car journey to the airport. He worries too, about their children ('one left, one about to leave'), about job prospects for that generation, about the huge competition and the pressures of the corporate world. It's dog eat dog out there.

But the Captain must do a job, there is cargo to be shipped, some of it food supplies for hungry Africans. Once at the port he sets about the journey thoroughly and carefully, double checking all possible security risks and drilling his crew in emergency procedures. It is in the middle of one such that they are boarded by pirates, after a faulty hose on the side of the ship gives the four men a tiny window of opportunity. The cargo ship is massive, the skinny pirates' boat small and precarious, but there's a chilling sense in which we are all helpless in the face of armed terrorism, especially that which is perpetrated by men who have nothing to lose. 9/11 taught us that.

The next two hours of the film chart the way Captain Phillips handles the pirates and their violent threat to the ship, hiding his crew and engineering a power failure so that eventually the pirate captain, Muse, is taken hostage himself, below decks. It's a battle of wit vs. might; one cannot help thinking that Captain Phillips has on his side technological knowhow, education, training, poise. In contrast the Somalis are gung ho, fractious, and seem unsure of their strategy. The power cut leads to the youngest amongst them, hardly out of childhood himself, walking into a pile of glass, cutting his foot badly. Unlike the other older men, he has no sandals. In a botched hostage swap, Captain Phillips ends up being driven away with all four of them in a lifeboat, and the US navy immediately go into action.

In the sweaty and frightening confines of the lifeboat, the Captain attempts to bind up the young Somali's bleeding foot and keep channels of communication open, all the time having to manage his own growing fear and exhaustion. Instead of taking the £30,000 which was on board the Alabama, the Pirate Captain, Muse, is pressing the US for a ransom of $6 million. Buoyed up with the thought of dollars, he keeps up a facade of bravado, joking that after this ordeal is over, he'll go to America himself. America, land of individualism, material comfort and ...greed? 

On board the lifeboat they are running out of water and are soon outmaneuvered by the US naval special forces. The Pirates' gullibility is finally unmasked when they believe the US negotiator's lie that 'elders' from their tribe are on their way, and that as soon as Philips is released they'll have their money. Muse goes aboard the US frigate, as unaware as is humanly possible, of the vastly superior resources with which first world technology and money have equipped the navy for victory. He is promptly arrested*. 

As flies to a spider's web, the final three pirates and hostage Phillips are hemmed in with no options. The Captain, convinced he will be soon be killed, writes a heartbreaking farewell note to his family, finally losing his cool when one of the pirates tears it off him and viciously ties him up. But precision snipers, (who in real life, were waiting at the President's command, no less) are tracking the pirates as they move about in the confined space of the lifeboat. They finally find their three targets in one, terrifying, simultaneous moment when the Special Forces Commander shouts 'Execute!' and three bullets take them all out, Phillips looking on in terror, his ordeal finally over.

What are we to think? Greed is ugly; violence uglier. But the world is not a level playing field. The premonitions of Captain Phillips' wife were accurate: the world is changing rapidly. We cannot ignore the abject poor. Children become soldiers. Poverty is a breeding ground for radicalism.

The same evening I watched 'Quitting the English Defence League; When Tommy met Mo', on BBC 1, which charted the relationship between Tommy Robinson, leader of the English Defence League, and Mo Ansar, a British Muslim who campaigned to get the EDL banned. 

As well of footage of Robinson addressing the EDL at various Union Jack waving rallies, we saw him talking with Ansar about what Muslims really believe, even visiting a Mosque and eating with local Muslims, while Mo himself becomes the first Muslim to address the EDL. 

As in Captain Phillips it's about a clash of cultures as much as it's about religion. Robinson objects to the way women and men are segregated in the mosque. He doesn't like the use of the burqa  He meets Salma Yaqoob, former Birmingham Councillor, who explains that some women wish to wear to the burqa, some don't; it is they, not secular law, who should be allowed to decide. He meets historian, Tom Holland, who discusses the Qu'ran 'slavery texts', and how scholars and Muslims may or may not interpret them in the light of modern human rights sensibilities. 

It seems reasonable to want to know if the violence done in the name of Islam is an accurate outworking of what is in the original sacred text. But it's equally tricky in Judaism and Christianity to determine how to interpret texts. Is it by the spirit or the letter? The Jews tried to trick Jesus on this.

In a dramatic twist, Robinson decides to leave the EDL and cast his lot in with former fundamentalist, Maajid Nawaz, of the anti-extremist think tank, Quilliam. He feels he can get further with a group who are proactive in identifying extremism and isolating it from mainstream Islam, than he can with Mo Ansar, who perhaps errs on the side of downplaying extremism (for fear of tarring every British Muslim with the same brush?) It's a very hard line to walk. Ansar (and Yaqoob) are less than impressed with the outcome. Has Robinson gone 'mainstream' to further what are still violent aspirations? Can this think tank be trusted? 

How do religious people interpret 'difficult' sacred texts? What happens when religious and secular values collide, when East meets West? How do we deal with terrorism without stigmatising the innocent? The original Captain Phillips was clear in his own mind about his original Somali Pirate Captain: he was a thug, a man of violence. But is there no such thing as 'more sinned against than sinning'? (Lear). Or is violence always violence? As Jesus said, 'he who lives by the sword will die by the sword', yet he chose a Zealot as one of his disciples.

It would seem Tom Hanks (and Jesus) is right; nothing is ever as black and white as we would like in real, multi-cultural, global, religious and political life.

**In real life, the Somalian pirate Captain realised his ambition to go to America. He is now serving 33 years in a high security US penitentiary. 

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