Oscar Season Diary #4: When Will the Fantasy End? “Captain Phillips” and the New American Dream

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For the better half of the last decade, The Academy has gone soft.

Argo ends as we gaze upon the quintessential American family embracing amidst the backdrop of a glistening sun and oversized American flag. The Artist concludes with a pair of beaming smiles, aimed like saccharine arrows poised to pierce our helpless hearts with undying hope.

Both films are fantasies, and both reaffirm what only cinema can; that painful reality is pitifully easy to forget, even when it surrounds us each and every day.

Zero Dark Thirty’s final shot shows a dead-tired woman unraveling before our very eyes, crushed by the lack of relief she feels after pouring years of her life into finding and killing the most-wanted man in the world. In its final moments, Captain Phillips dares to toy with the idea that American heroism is a mirage bolstered only by ignorance and virus-like corporate domination of the international economy. While the former’s chance at Oscar’s top prize were dashed thanks to the irresponsibly harsh political campaign against it, the latter seems similarly destined to find itself among Oscar’s forgotten contenders when envelopes are opened early next year. Both films challenge us in places where Best Picture winners like The Artist and Argo dared not to tread.

With hard-hitting dramas like 12 Years a Slave garnering the overwhelming majority of Oscar buzz, it’s clear that The Academy might finally (for the first time since 2009) be obligated to choose a film that represents a relevant sense of reality versus the abnormally glossy one they’ve favored for years, and the conclusion can’t be drawn merely at the Best Picture line.

Where Argo celebrates American triumph, Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips embody a much darker, tangible pessimism in their refusal to herald classical American heroism. Zero Dark Thirty failed to receive its deserved share of Oscar attention. Will the story be different for Captain Phillips? Perhaps, though it is a far more challenging film that reflects a mentality the Oscars will have to deal with at one point or another.

These films—Captain Phillips, in particular—usher in the New American Dream, one that’s wrangled itself free from the grasp of US hands and into those whose existence lingers far outside the casual American’s radar. Somali pirates (like the ones in Captain Phillips) are a prime example of this.

We’re introduced to Muse, Bilal, and Najee, a trio of fishermen living in poverty on the beaches of Somalia. The waters before them teem with international trade routes, largely controlled by the United States’ almost tyrannical presence. These fishermen don’t let this domination keep them down, however, as they set out to overtake US ships and reap the bounties of their cargo.

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These men see America as not only an intrusive presence, but as something to be conquered. Filtered through this foreign perspective, the New American Dream evolves beyond merely being a goal-oriented journey to better opportunity. For Bilal, Muse, and Najee, it is a challenge; a plague; a virus; something that can be contained and conquered, as Muse reminds us that he “can handle America,” speaking of it as a single entity, brushing off a gargantuan presence as if it were a pesky housefly.

Once aboard Phillips’ ship, these men demand two things: money and honesty. “No games,” Muse, a stern-faced and determined leader with little inclination to cause bodily harm, consistently reminds Phillips. These men are here to do business, to bring back a portion of wealth that traverses their home waters on a daily basis, and to assert themselves as a minority of the world population that refuse to disappear under the boot of America.

While the three pirates come to represent various aspects of the anti-American worldview (rage, yearning for national prosperity, and those lost in the struggle between the two positions) the film as a whole represents the underlying fear Americans have but rarely have to confront in their everyday lives: that those we deem “weak,” that we fancy ourselves “untouchable” to, harness a primal power which threatens the footing upon which we stand. In contrast, we see that Americans are willing to do less work for more, as Phillips’ men refuse to defend the ship because they’re “in the union” and “didn’t sign up for this,” as poor Somali men scale their vessel–without shoes.

It’s interesting that in such a short amount of time, now nearly a year after Kathryn Bigelow’s sophomore effort opened to #1 at the box-office (well on its way to nearly $100 million domestically), that the American public seems to be embracing challenging alternatives to the male-dominated, male-marketed norm. Despite typical hits like Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2, American audiences have proven that a yearning for alternative films is ever-present. We saw success stories for women (The Heat, Gravity, The Conjuring—nearly every “original” title to open to over $34 million in weekend receipts was female-oriented or driven by a female star [or stars]) and watched adult-oriented dramas climb their way to box-office success (Prisoners peaked at $60 million, Now You See Me quietly made over $100 million).

Captain Phillips seems poised to break $100 million within the next few weeks, and 12 Years a Slave has enough awards push behind it to cross into healthy $50 or $60 million territory by the time the Oscars roll around.

My only problem continues to be audience reception of these films. I can remember audiences clapping at the end of Zero Dark Thirty and, again, at my screening of Captain Phillips. I continue to be disturbed by this behavior, as both films position America as an almost evil entity that’s to be feared for its ruthless manipulation of so many outlets and people.

The Americans in Captain Phillips ignore the pirates’ willingness to cooperate by playing games and manipulating, which directly opposes Muse’s only condition for complying in the first place. After heading the operation to successfully kill Osama bin Laden, Maya sits on an airplane, alone, and weeps to herself after the pilot asks her where she’d like to go. Her tears stand for the anxieties about America’s position in the world. Where do we go from here? How do we face life when the evils of America’s reach become personal? We see the effects of America’s domination in Captain Phillips. “There’s got to be some other way to solve this,” Phillips says to Muse. “Maybe in America,” he responds, for once acknowledging the fantasyland that the nation has become.

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The Academy rarely plays with challenge. Their voting base seems, to me, like the kind of people who would clap at the end of Captain Phillips because an American “hero” survives. I’m the kind of person who sees the last shots of the film for what they are. I can’t watch as a close-up on the tiny lifeboat where the pirates lost their lives becomes an extreme long shot that positions three large American vessels on all sides, cementing US domination as an unrelenting, soulless presence on the world stage.

It’s scary and unnerving. I hope The Academy will learn to see through the veil of American entitlement if it chooses to award Captain Phillips with anything.

Awards for heroism it does not deserve; recognition for lifting the wool Argo seeks to pull down, however, would be most appropriate.

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