“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.