“Captain Phillips” and Hollywood’s New Navy SEAL Cult

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Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Cast member Tom Hanks poses at the premiere of "Captain Phillips" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California September 30, 2013.

Some hard facts: There is no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny, and the Navy SEALs are not all-powerful. We learned that much from last weekend’s aborted SEAL raid on an al Shabab terrorist’s compound in Somalia. The failure of the operation to capture Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir—due to the unexpected presence of women and children, surprisingly fierce resistance, or some combination of the two—proved that our special forces do not in fact have supernatural powers. Not every raid is Abbottabad.

In Hollywood, however, the narrative of SEAL omnipotence is alive and well. Case in point is the new thriller “Captain Phillips,” which opens today. The film tells the true story of an American ship captain who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2009, and ultimately freed after a long ordeal by the lethal witchcraft of the U.S. military. It’s a riveting and harrowing movie—and while it doesn’t purport to offer complete factual accuracy, has an attention to detail that gives Captain Richard Phillips’s nightmare an unsettlingly realistic feel. You feel like you’re the one who’s been kidnapped.

But it’s also important, in a cultural sense, that you feel that the U.S. military has come to your rescue. And that it has done so swiftly, expertly and relatively humanely. As was the case in Zero Dark Thirty, the American military machine is portrayed here as a noble enterprise that functions almost flawlessly—and strikes the target with jaw-dropping precision.

Some viewers might find the juxtaposition of enormous American warships in pursuit of a handful of shoeless Somali pirates to be discomfiting. But the overall effect is a swelling of the national breast—a sense for the viewer that our armed forces are, for lack of a more sophisticated word, awesome.

That’s a sign of the times. Hollywood’s representation of the U.S. military shifts with the national mood. Propagandistic accounts of World War II were replaced with the dark moral ambiguity of post-Vietnam films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. The tone returned to patriotic form in the late Cold War—think Top Gun and Rambo. But America was a confounded victim again in Black Hawk Down, and the horror of Iraq produced films like The Green Zone and The Hurt Locker, which returned to Vietnam-era themes of misguided American power and deep military dysfunction. In December comes the Afghanistan-based Lone Survivor, a Mark Wahlberg-fronted true story about a SEAL mission that goes terribly wrong.

More Black Hawk Down than Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor will be a corrective to the image of SEAL perfection offered by Captain Phillips. And that’s for the best. The Navy SEALs are an incredible fighting force. But they can’t do anything, at any time—as the failed raid at Barawe demonstrated. When considering future missions for American special forces, that’s important for both politicians and the public to remember.

23 comments
donnieba
donnieba

There are heros in battles that are lost as well as battles that are won. Win or lose Navy Seals are definately heroes and deserve our utmost respect.

kimujnr
kimujnr

I agree in large part that there is definitely a large segment of people who deify SEALs, and this negates from the losses these men have endured through the years. I think a healthy respect and admiration is important whilst also being cognizant of the brutal sacrifices these guys make.

I appreciate the nation's pro-service leanings due to the fact now a service member in uniform is greeted with a handshake and a smile instead of being spit on and called a "baby killer."

westfald
westfald

All the Navy SEAL worshipers need to calm down. No doubt about it, SEALs and more specifically DEVGRU (aka SEAL Team 6, which was disbanded years ago BTW) are badass warriors, but as the author stated, aren't infallible. The author was simply stating that SEALs are not super hero's and bleed when shot just like any other war fighter. It's actually to the SEALs disservice to place them on such a pedestal.

SEALs among our best, but the media's portrayal of them somewhat overstates their capabilities. The guys - according to many and some SEALs - who really are as badass and "air-tight" as the media portrays the SEALs is the Army's 1st SOFD-D aka Delta Force. Without questions DEVGRU shoots / trains unbelievable amounts, but Delta will always do more as they're solely focused being "shooters" where DEVGRU has to maintain its maritime capability which is easily the most difficult combat environment for operators. Also, Delta has to work in teams with type A guys from differently military backgrounds (ie 75th Rangers, SF, 82nd Airborne, Marines rumored) which folks say forces the Unit to constantly challenge habits and procedures. DEVGRU pulls the overwhelming majority of its guys from the numbered SEAL teams for selection and is speculated that preference goes to those who know / have relationships with standing DEVGRU operators, vis-a-vis, DEVGRU is a super charged / funded, counter terrorism focused SEAL team.

JoshuaGabrielMcQueen
JoshuaGabrielMcQueen

I have to say that the SEALS are the closest thing to super heroes that we have in these United States. Michael, why do you seem so pressed to point out the failures of the most elite group of warriors in armed forces when their successes are far more impressive? Did you consider their pulling out of a mission due to heavy fire and the presence of civilians an opportunity to point out their fallibility? You are aware that the enemy that they face aren't opposed to killing innocents without hesitation to protect themselves and kill as many of our own as they can, right? Let me give YOU the reminder that the our guys are still the best on the planet at what they do...You should remember to root for our team to succeed in the brilliant fashion that they do on a regular basis instead of the other way around.. Have a great day, Mr. Crowley.

WalterAdams
WalterAdams

The Iconic image of the American fighting man, and the most accurate, is the picture of G.I.s in Desert Storm reaching down to pick up the Iraqi troops who are falling on their faces and kissing their boots.
Contrask that image with the ones of Republican Guards kicking handcuffed, kneeling prisoners, full in the face.
Fast forward to Ws Iraq War and see the vids of a street in Baghdad full of civilians and American troops scattered among them. A blast shatters the air, and the children Run To the G.I.s for protection. Children know who will harm them and who won't.

hoosierteacher
hoosierteacher

Crowley, let's get this straight.  

1)  You think the SEALS failed in their mission because they showed restraint when innocent children were present.  Ok, you're clearly out of the mainstream on that one.

2)  In the rescue mission at sea you think that because the Somali pirates were barefoot the accomplishment of the SEALS was negated.  Let's see, those bare foot Somalis had their guns at the head of the hostage captain at the moment those shots were made, it was dark, and each boat was bobbing (not in synch with each other) on the waves at the length of about half a football field.  Each simultaneous shot was a head shot.  But apparently the SEALs weren't skilled because the Somalis were barefoot?  Yep, you're way out of the mainstream on that one.

Nice to have your military hating self out of the closet Mr. Crowley.  No wonder Time is sinking so fast.

MarkBeardsleyABR
MarkBeardsleyABR

What a remarkably obtuse article. The vast majority of Americans think of the Navy SEALs as being superbly trained men who are some of the most capable warriors in the world. But they are still men, and they will be given jobs that they can't fulfill from time to time, as happened in Somalia. Crowley seems to find more comfort in tales of failure and death, i.e. Blackhawk Down and Lone Survivor, but even there he fails to see that even in failure, these soldiers, SEALs and airmen performed immensely difficult duties with elan and intelligence. 

Crowley is too focused on trumpeting the failures of America's forces to recognize that even in the worst of these cases, it usually wasn't our armed forces that failed, it was the society that was supposed to be there for them. The failure lies with the Crowley's of the world, not our warriors.

MrObvious
MrObvious

I prefer Saving Private Ryan. Excellent visual film artistry with a simple story about personal sacrifice and heroism. It spawned two great TV mini series, Band of Brothers and later Pacific (something).

verogolfer
verogolfer

Agree with RJZZ, what is the reason for this silly article? Two films, Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips, over a two/three year period do not mark a trend. SEALS carry out the most dangerous missions and the most dangerous missions always come with a high degree of failure. If one thing goes wrong... Nor do the two films give us a guarantee of SEAL perfection. They tell of two missions that, thankfully, worked out well. A movie about Normandy would not be a guarantee that every battle goes well.

RJZZ
RJZZ

WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE !!! A WASTE OF TIME !!!:-/

StillWater_Home
StillWater_Home

Thanks for the 6th grade analysis. Platoon came out the year AFTER Top Gun, and do you even know what Lone Survivor is about? Navy Seals died because they chose not to execute a civilian who stumbled into their ambush site. Get a clue.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

This article is another example why TIME Magazine is losing prestige, revenues, and readers.

Hiring armchair bloogers like Michel Crowley (instead of actual journalists) contributes to the sense that the magazine insists on continuing its decline into complete irrelevancy.

anon76
anon76

You're a bit selective in your filmography, as well as oversimplifying the image of US forces portrayed in the movies you do cite, Crowley.  Top Gun was contemporaneous with Platoon, and both followed Rambo (which followed Apocalypse Now).

For every person that saw US misfortune in Blackhawk Down, another was inspired by the camaraderie and heroism on display by the Rangers who quite literally risked life and limb to ensure "no man left behind".  Don't forget that that film came during the huge upsurge in enlistment that occurred post 9/11.

And, long before Abattabad, Hollywood willingly followed the Bush administration's directive to bankroll films that put our troops in a friendly light.  Chief among the results was Bruce Willis' "Tears of the Sun", in which Navy Seals rescue a group of (Christian) Nigerians from a barbaric army of (Muslim) rebels, with Burke's quote serving as the tag: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing".

Clearly, the fetishizing of the troops is nothing new, and with the partial exception of the period around the Vietnam War, pro- and anti-war films have always been rolled out around the same time.


SantaClaus
SantaClaus

Michael: You undermined your own argument. Since you referred to me by my legal name, Santa Claus, I'm commenting. Contrary to your assertion, In fact, I do exist. Why should your readers take your position seriously, when you lie to them in your opening sentence? Visit TheSantaClaus on Facebook and become better informed. Blessings to all, Santa Claus

yogi
yogi

Way to be a negative Nancy, Crowley. Next post I'm sure you'll tell me Team America wasn't based on real events!

harte.ryan
harte.ryan

@JoshuaGabrielMcQueen All your questions are straw man attacks that don't dignify an answer. As someone who has lived side by side with Navy Seals I can assure you they're just as fallible as you and me

SarahSibert
SarahSibert

@MarkBeardsleyABR I agree about Crowley. It made me sick reading this not only because what you just pointed out is true but it hits close to home. 

You couldn't have said it better. Thank you.

anon76
anon76

@MrObvious  @MrObvious 

I think just "The" Pacific.

Fun fact:  Tom Hanks did a cameo in one of the episodes of BoB that he directed, as a Brit.

csmallo17
csmallo17

@StillWater_Home "execute", "murder", all the same to government employees.  The SEALs had no business being in  the position to murder a non combatant.  

anon76
anon76

@yogi 

He's taken down Santa and the Easter Bunny.  Up next:  the Tooth Fairy.