Tag Archives: Paul Greengrass

United 93 (2006)

Putting aside racist, neoconservative propaganda about “radical Islam,” most of us have tried to understand what happened on 9/11 in one of two ways. There’s fiction, any one of 100 conspiracy theories that get most of the facts wrong, but get the overall narrative right. The system is rigged. There’s non-fiction, the 9/11 Commission Report, a serious investigation that drowns the truth in an avalanche of detail.

United 93 falls squarely into the second category. Director Paul Greengrass, who got his start in TV news, understands the difference between the raw, unsorted information that floods the airwaves during a crisis, and the kind of polished narrative that makes it into a big budget Hollywood film. He also knows how to conflate the two, to hide a polished, controlled narrative behind the appearance of the kind of raw, unsorted information that floods the airwaves during a crisis.

United 93, is, in fact, such an artful depiction of sense of chaos and helplessness we all felt on the day of September 11th, 2001 that it’s easy to forget we’re watching a movie made two years after the release of the 9/11 Commission Report. If you pay attention, however, you see how closely it hues to the, sometimes dubious, “official narrative.” While Norad may have been conducting an exercise on 9/11, they dropped everything and turned their attention to the real world as soon as they learned that Flight 11 was a possible hijack. They simply didn’t have the resources, time, or proper authorization to do anything. The FAA and the air traffic controllers in Boston, Newark and Cleveland are all conscientious, quick thinking men who responded to the unprecedented terrorist attack with the right instincts. The head of the FAA is a decisive man who risks his career to make the right decision, to stop all air traffic over North America, until further notices. Nobody at the gates at any of the major airports makes any mistakes. None of the terrorists look very suspicious.

This is, of course, all true. Norad couldn’t have done very much on 9/11. The head of the FAA did make a brave decision that saved lives. It’s highly unlike that either of the planes that hit both towers of the world Trade Center could have been shot down. It’s only in the second half of United 93, when Greengrass turns to United 93 itself, that fiction, or at least, speculation, comes into play. Nobody on Flight 93 survived. We have a few phones calls relaying some of the information. We know the plane crashed before it reached it’s target. We know the passengers staged a rebellion against their terrorist captors. That’s about it.

We don’t know how the individual terrorists acted. We don’t know if the flight attendants stole weapons out from under their noses. We don’t know much about the debate that took place before Todd Beamer led the attempt to take back control of the plane. Above all, we don’t know if the plane was shot down or not. United 93 takes the firm stance that it was not, that the terrorists crashed it near Shanksville Pennsylvania during a struggle with the passengers, who, by that point, were agonizingly close to seizing the wheel. It would, of course, be too painful to think about the possibility that they might, in fact, have had it under control before Cheney ordered it blown out of the sky. So Greengrass doesn’t.

United 93, is, in the end, a very well-done painting of our emotional state that day. But it tells us little we didn’t already know. We don’t even get to know very much about the passengers who saved the Capitol Building from meeting the same fate as World Trade Center 1 and World Trade Center 2. In the end, Greengrass decides to play it safe. The whole film is a beautiful cop out masked by the false appearance of uncut reality.

Captain Phillips (2013)

The first half of Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’s film about the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia in 2009, is not only exciting and well-made, it’s an excellent argument against gun control.

20 good guys without guns are piloting the MV Maersk Alabama, a container ship commanded by Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips, along the coast of Somalia. They are in pirate-infested infested waters. As Phillips checks the alerts about pirates on his computer, and as he prepares his crew for the inevitable attack, we can feel the tension build. We all remember the story about the MV Maersk Alabama from 2009, so we knew what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t matter. The suspense is papable. We’ve already met the bad guys with guns, the Somali pirates, in an earlier scene. Then we see them, a fishing boat and two skiffs. Phillips picks them up on radar. He orders a lock down an evasive maneuvers. The crew sets up fire hoses on the railing of the ship in order to make it more difficult for the pirates to board. They radio the authorities. They prepare to retreat to the engine room in the event the ship is captured.

It’s difficult to convey just how hair raising the chase is. Paul Greengrass, who also made United 93, knows set up a chase scene between bad guys with guns in little skiffs and good guys without guns in a huge bulk freighter. Phillips bluffs the mother ship and one of the skiffs out of the attack with a fake call to the navy for air support. He swamps another in his wake. The first attack fails, but the next day, one of the skiffs continues pursuit. They pull alongside the MV Maersk Alabama. They’re almost overwhelmed by the high-pressure fire hoses. The ship lurches right. It lurches left. The pirates barely hold on. Finally they get one of their metal ladders onto the railing. You feel the terror in Captain Phillips’s body as he sees them getting ready to board. You also ask yourself one question.

What if only one or two of the men on board the ship had had AR-15s?

None of the usual arguments for gun-control work. Indeed, it’s a little puzzling as to why the MV Maersk Alabama didn’t have a few automatic weapons on board. Armored cars have armed guards. So why not a bulk freighter carrying millions of dollars worth of supplies through pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia? What’s more, we’re the open seas. There are no innocent bystanders. The situation is chaotic but there’s a clear shot at the target, the four men with AK-47s climbing up the metal ladder onto the ship. Even a poor shot with a 38 caliber revolver could have probably shot the guy in the lead and sent him tumbling back into the sea. At the very least, the pirates may have gotten the message and called off the attacks.

Where are the guns? Where are the guns? Oh where are the guns?

Your inner George Zimmerman will be disappointed. None of the good guys has a gun. When the bad guys, who do have guns, board the ship, your inner George Zimmerman will think the Kenyan Muslim illegal immigrant squatting in the White House not only took his gun, but his testicles as well. Tom Hanks as far as I know is not a racist, and I doubt Paul Greengrass is either, but this is a profoundly racist depiction of black men. It’s actually testament to the skill of the filmmaker and, sadly, to the skill of the black actors who play the Somali pirates, that Captain Phillips managed to slip these four drug-addled, bug-eyed, demonic creatures right out of Birth of a Nation past respectable public opinion all the way to a nomination for Best Picture. The people who made Captain Phillips may not be racist. But the final product of their labor certainly is racist.

Once on board the ship, the superior organization of the western crew manning the MV Maersk Alabama, which, to be fair, includes a few dark skinned men as well, takes over. These pirates just aren’t very bright. While their skill in boarding the MV Maersk Alabama was admirable their skill in searching the MV Maersk Alabama is laughably incompetent. They need the crew to pilot the ship back to Somalia. But where are they? They want to search the engine room. Tom Hanks bluffs them into searching the kitchen first. When they finally make their way down to the engine room, the crew knows they’re coming and spreads broken glass near the entrance. One of the pirates slices up his foot, thus reducing the effective strength of the attackers to 3. The bad guys have guns but no shoes. Two of the pirates take Hanks back up to the bridge. The crew then overpowers the lead pirate, takes his gun —- finally the good guys without guns get a gun — and arrange an exchange. The MV Maersk Alabama’s maneuvers had sunk their skiff. Hanks offers 30,000 dollars and the ship’s life boat, and himself as a hostage, in exchange for leaving the ship. The pirates accept the deal, drag Hanks onto the life boat, and, do to superior western brainpower and the self-sacrifice of a good guy without a gun — one who should have had a gun goddammit — the ship is saved.

At this point, I suppose you have to ask yourself the same question Tom Hanks is asking himself. Do these pirates have any humanity in them? Will he be able to talk his way out of the hostage situation and get back to Vermont. I’d say no. Greengrass suggests they do. The lead pirate speaks English. He claims he’s only a fisherman who’s been forced into piracy because western bulk trawlers have been overfishing along his coast line, but it never quite works. At times his arguments may seem rational but it’s impossible to get beyond his wild, bug-eyed mannerisms. What’s more, as the pirates go on without sleep, they get wilder, more incompetent, more irrational. That the four pirates who kidnapped Captain Phillips in real life may have been wild, irrational, violent men is beside the point. There are wild, irrational white Anglo Saxon methheads in the Ozark Mountains. Captain Phillips is about Somili pirates. It could, in fact, have been a good film. Had Captain Phillips centered its narrative on the four Somli pirates, showed them as sympathetic figures driven to a life of crime by western piracy of their fishing stocks, it might have gotten under the flood of propaganda in the western media in 2009 about gun wielding men in skiffs threatening the fishing lanes. But alas, it doesn’t.

The second half of Captain Phillips is boring as hell. I assume Paul Greengrass had the cooperation of the United States Navy because they provided him with an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer, a frigate, and a 40,000 ton amphibious assault ship as props. The United States sailors and Navy Seals are cool, competent, and professional. It should be great military porn. In fact, my mind tells me that it is in fact great military porn. But it’s still boring as hell. Skip it. It’ll put you asleep before the happy ending.