In praise of Hannibal

There is a confounding, nearly two-seasons-old experiment underway on American network television. It is a hypnotic swirl of delirious, corporeal excess. No image is too grisly, no sensation too unnerving, no taboo too forbidden. I write in praise of the lyrical horror of NBC’s Hannibal.

You have seen and read much of this before: Thomas Harris’ cannibals, serial killers, debauchers, and lawmen, breathed into cinematic life by Anthony Hopkins, Edwards Norton, Brian Cox, and William Petersen, and now titrated into an eccentric-detective procedural by Bryan K. Fuller. The show’s mood could best be described as “nightmare, most constant.” Chocolaty purples, reds, and long shadows drape scenes in Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s therapy sessions. It is the beast’s lair. It is terrifying.

Out in the world—the beast’s playground—victims are re-cast as angels, obelisks, tree-human hybrids, even cellos, often inflected with religious or spiritual iconography; each victim becomes a new, lurid way to conceive of our relationship with the world, its objects, its beliefs, and contradictions. The death-images are carbon-based monuments to physical beauty, horror, nature, contortion, fluidity, all things organic and corruptible and corrupted. The myriad ways we can be twisted, carved out, spliced, diced, Fuller suggests, become Banksyesque objects. There’s a supernatural beauty to us strangled by our very desire to live (New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz described the murder scenes as “art-directed-to-the-nines aftermath, lit in such a way as to highly the artificiality, the art-like quality, of the prosthetic bodies and organs and blood”).

Perhaps the show’s most omnipresent thematic thread is what its characters refer to as “psychic driving,” where experts of the mind slither into the damaged psyches of victims, murderers, and shadowy heroes, to bury insidious seeds of self- doubt. It is a decidedly nightmarish spin on Inception: rather than planting inspiration, you inject a moral poison causing your unsuspecting victim to believing the worst possible things about himself are, indeed, possible. Your most venal and socially corrupting impulses? Not only encouraged, but praised, as your grip on reality is slowly, masterfully destroyed.

Our master is a brilliant psychiatrist, Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter, a creation so sexily and persuasively realized, you’re not so much rooting for him as you’re trying to evade his seduction. He masquerades as the ultimate sybarite, aping the rituals of fine society: preparing a foie gras au torchon, hosting the most civilized dinner parties, mastering the harpsichord along with the perverse cadences and blandishments of sophisticated conversation. Even moments that feel concrete—Hannibal’s latest cannibalistic masterpiece, juxtaposed against a garishly lit autopsy scene back at FBI HQ—mock your sensibilities of decency and social order. The harness of civility that we impose upon our basest impulses comes to feel like a joke. Our conventions, our consciousness of them, fractured.

While Hannibal’s ultimate motivations remain unclear nearly two seasons in, we assume he’s in some part disgusted at the detritus of society, at the masks worn in polite society. He craves authenticity. As his sinister ruse unfolds—supposedly assisting the FBI on a series of gruesome murder investigations—we can only watch, suspended in hushed horror. One assumes we’ll learn more in the recently announced third season of the show, particularly as he and Will square off against the pedophiliac, cackling meat mogul and torturer Mason Verger.

It is in Will Graham, his grizzled, self-righteous, arrogant, tortured nemesis and moral soul mate, that Lecter seems to see the promise of truth. In Fuller’s story, Will is a marvelously damaged creation. Wracked with a Twitchy genius mined by the FBI’s behavioral crimes specialists, Will’s terrible gift is the power to drink in the aftermath of murder, deconstruct it, and replay the act in his mind’s eye—to divulge its “grand design,” via a most terrible, perfect empathy. The killer’s eye, his bloodied hands, his diabolical motivations, mutate into Will’s own internalized experience.

The most prominent and pervasive artistic touchstone for Fuller’s show would seem to be Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona, a creepy, masterful study of the exchanging and blending and fracturing of identity, well-summarized and praised in this short Criterion video essay:

Note the unsettling, sharp cuts. All are closeups of Liv Ullman’s damaged countenance, but from slightly adjusted angles; they force the viewer to re-consider how shadow falls across her face, sometimes dominating, sometimes receding, sometimes in harmony, something we see often in Hannibal. The sterile quality of her hospital room reminds us of the FBI autopsy lab in the show. Then, around the :42 mark, a most direct connection with Hannibal‘s visual iconography: a scene at breakfast between Ullman and Bibi Andersson, a horizontal two-shot with the characters in the foreground, casta against a window looking out onto the coastline. It is much like the mise-en-scene in this early meeting between Will and Hannibal. I highlight the visual callbacks here only to point out that cinema’s been probing for ways to tell the story of mental bisection and amalgamation for decades, and that these two works share some strong DNA.

Will also likely dwells somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, which impairs his ability to relate to the still-living. In fact, he fits into a tradition of homage to Sherlock Holmes, whose pop-culture legacy Laura Miller describes in the latest Harper’s. The Holmes of BBC’s popular Sherlock comes off to his peers as “patently dysfunctional and perhaps even dangerously so. His Watson suggests he has Asperger’s, based on his apparent “lack of empathy, obsessive interests, and, occasionally, savantism.”

All this applies to Will as well. It makes him able, valued, and brilliant. But in his universe, such brilliance makes him a target, a fascinating intellectual prize to be needled, provoked, and unlocked, by Lecter. They are a study in physical contrasts—manicured vs. scruffed, epicurean vs. backwoods—and intellectual confluence. Lecter’s fascination with Will spills into full view early in the show. “God forbid we become friendly,” Lecter muses to Will over breakfast. “I don’t find you that interesting,” Will retorts. “You will,” Lecter replies. Soon, it becomes apparent to our hero that the psychiatrist has been brought into the fold to assess him, rather than vicious perpetrators they seek:

“What you see and learn touches everything else in your mind. Your values and decency are present, yet shocked at your associations, appalled at your dreams,” Lecter tells Will. His words often sound over determined, canned, and voluptuously entranced. Lecter will frequently speak in this manner: the world, it minds, and those who act on it, are objects of fascination, particularly those who seem to deny an impulse or an obfuscated brilliance.

As the first season progresses, Fuller takes great pains to use imagery—close ups of a cold, sweating clammy, deteriorating Will—to suggest the damage wrought by his gift of his gift. Ultimately, the central arc of season one revealed itself to have to have been Lecter’s (temporarily) successful framing of Graham for his own crimes. But he succeeds in this by uncoupling Will’s genius and detachment from reality into the belief that he is a cold-blooded psychopath. Psychic driving, laid bare:

It is my belief that Lecter does want to help Will. But only, in the end, to help himself. “This, cannibal you have him getting to know,” Lecter tells Will’s superior, Jack Crawford, “I think I can help good will see his face.” The cannibal of whom he speaks isn’t himself, in the end; but in another way, he is talking about himself, explaining in plain language why Lecter wants and needs Will to embrace his demons. Only by doing that, will Graham be able to use his perfect empathy to see Hannibal. Which, I suspect, is our prized cannibal’s chief motivation.

Through the second season, an imprisoned Will figures out how Lecter framed him and used his devices to fracture Will’s sense of self and convince him that, perhaps, he was capable of all the terrible things Hannibal himself did. Lecter, meanwhile, works even more closely with the FBI. Graham is eventually freed, but only after attempting to murder Hannibal from inside prison. If he can get Will to kill again, then perhaps he’ll be able to corral his gift of empathy to help him grasp why and how he is the beast that he is. But Will is composed, angry, and hungry.

Hannibal is emphatically not for everyone. Even as a fan, I couldn’t describe its intended audience to you, other than show maestro Bryan Fuller and his fellow producers, frolicking gleefully in their truly bananas-level haze of weirdness.

In case you were taking Dexter Filkins for granted…

There’s his profile of Nuri al-Maliki-slash-grim assessment of Iraq’s present and future. And these grafs near the top:

I saw Maliki in his office in February, and he appeared as stiff and colorless as he did during his televised speech—an apparatchik become the boss. Wearing the same navy-blue suit and purple tie, he spoke in a monotone, his face blank, his body seemingly fixed to his chair. The office, a sterile room without a trace of warmth, had no windows, presumably because windows could be shattered by bombs.

When I asked Maliki about Anbar, he offered muddled explanations for why his forces had apprehended the Sunni parliamentarian. “Nobody could deny it—he and his brother were carrying guns against the Iraqi government,” he said. He brightened when I asked him about his reëlection prospects. He told me he had earned the right to keep his job because, among other things, he had pursued policies that treated Iraqis equally, regardless of sect, and he had resisted the forces that were pulling his country apart. “First of all, we have kept Iraq united,” he said.

As Maliki spoke, a low-pitched rumble shook his office. Our tea glasses rattled. It was a car bomb—a few hundred yards from the fortified compound where Maliki lives. It was one of eight explosions that struck Baghdad that day, leaving thirty-four people dead. For a moment, everyone sat in silence. Then Maliki turned to an aide. “Go see what that was,” he said.


The words I bolded, I loved for their visceral, scene-setting impact. And their simplicity.

It feels like Maliki is  that room, and vice versa.

Through the piece, Maliki speaks in spare (translated, presumably) language; these grafs set that tone and expectation.

The New Yorker  doesn’t *do* nut grafs, but these three are nuts. Scene-setting, character-establishing nuts. Bravo

Character Sketch, 3/13/2014: Curly Nickerson

  • 48, Filipino-Irish.
  • prize fighter, quit at 25.
  • favorite books are nature books.
  • master Italian chef.
  • grew up in Tampa, hung along the Gulf coast.
  • worked barges, owned a raft, got destroyed in Andrew.
  • shrimp shack bouncer; once saved an heiress to a shipping fortune from 3 bros.
  • Met some Hindu swamis building a temple on island off the coast of Alabama; related stories of potato/farmer famine, American savagery
  • Curly’s parents: refugees who met in Iceland, wound up on a merchant marine ship headed for Panama;
  • Settled for a time in corpus.
  • fought encephalitis as a kid, gave him colorful visions of utopia; consumed with worry about meting his opposite one day, he or she that sees the end in their vision; ontological opposite.
  • wants to meet holy men, take some part of their good with him.

Character Sketch, 3/11/14: Janessa Quayle

  • 29, white child of apartheid; adopted by Indian parents; came to the US circa 92/93.
  • works in a Foley’s, suburban Raleigh.
  • went to NC state; dropped out after 1 semester.
  • off the grid for 3 years, lived near Iqaluit for a spell.
  • made furniture for handicapped folks, befriended Aziz,the lord of the land.
  • parents never looked for her; father, diabetic, mother died in car wreck shortly after she left.
  • brother went into tech industry in Charlotte; cashed out of a company before they went huge, worked for the city after that.
  • Janessa’s favorite kind of furniture to make is little kids tea party furniture.
  • got real good with a knife; had to fight a bear, killed it. no one knows about this.

I didn’t draw this

Those backwater places and their marginalizing ways

A stereotypical image of tea plantation workers in Jorhat. via Indium Bound.

In The New Republic, Graeme Wood reports on the horrors facing the Rohingya in the Burma’s Rakhine state:

Muslims and Buddhists who recently lived with each other peacefully now squat on opposite sides of barbed-wire fences and plot each other’s elimination. Old women and children too infirm to run from raiding parties have been speared or beaten to death in their homes. The fortunate ones are fleeing to other countries on overladen, leaky boats.

The fear of displacement is acute:

Virtually every foreigner with extensive Burma experience I met told me a story of hearing ordinary Burmese—even friends and colleagues—speak openly about the “Bengali” problem. . . .The monks peddle implausible theories of how Muslims are slowly taking over Burmese society, by seizing land, marrying and converting women, and simply out-spawning Buddhists.

The threat of re-population, exacerbated by the horror of conversion-by-marriage, has stoked the age-old fear that Burma will go the way of ancient Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Afghanistan, countries that were once majority-Buddhist and today are decidedly not. In response, many Rohingya have been stripped of their citizenship. Escape—to Malaysia or Indonesia—requires contracting with human-traffickers; all-too-frequently, the journey ends in death.

Here, Burma’s broader regional context feels pertinent: its proximity to the backwater states of Northeast India, which have nurtured and exploited a long-simmering resentment towards the refugees that have spilled across its border with Bangladesh since the horrific war of its creation in 1971. Most of these refugees are Muslim. Many are poor. And when discussed derisively by the middle Assamese—their diasporic, jingoistic cousins here in the United States, at least—it is frequently with the bitter language of Theyness. As those “Bengalis,” corrupting the land, their land. The language of Otherness, it turns out, knows no borders.

The reasons for the vitriol are numerous. Those concerning economic stagnation and the dire need for a more coherent immigration policy have always struck me as valid, especially as vivid indictments of a historically negligent central government, one that has preferred to stage-manage this four-decade-old crisis rather than solve it.  In turn, the region has nurtured separaratist militias, student movements, and state governments hostile to the very presence of these Bengalis, these Others. 

It begins with a bitter resentment, and quickly metastasizes into anger and outright fear, the normalization of nativism as a principle. Extreme cultural nationalism deployed as a means of clinging to every last shred of rootedness. It is particularly acute and painful for those who’ve left India to make their homes abroad: We left it all behind and look what happened. They invaded. That resentment sometimes explodes like it did in the village of Nellie thirty-one years ago.

In Caravan, more recently:

The violence in the western Assam districts involving indigenous Bodo tribespeople and Muslims of East Bengali origin, which peaked in July-August this year, has abated. In the weeks that rioting gripped the state, over 100 people were killed and nearly 200,000 people displaced from their homes. . . . 

Amidst incidents of Bodo rebels attacking Muslims trying to return to their villages, leader of a faction of the Bodo rebel group National Democratic Front of Bodoland, Gobinda Basumatary declared that displaced Muslims would have to “prove beyond doubt” their Indian citizenship before they would be allowed to return to their homes.

Worryingly, following the western Assam incidents, the anti-migrant movement is spreading to other parts of Assam, as well as some neighbouring states. In Nagaland, the Naga Council and the Naga Hoho, both powerful local groups made up of local intelligentsia and tribal elders, have called for expulsion of all “migrants” from Nagaland. Nativist groups in neighbouring Meghalaya and Manipur have also called for the immediate detection and expulsion of “foreigners” (read: illegal migrants).

“It looks like a repeat of the early 1980s when the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam spread to other states in the Northeast and led to a lot of turmoil,” says Samir Das, a professor of political science who has authored books on Assam’s nativist movements.

You learn the language for all this in middle-class living rooms and over tea, in newspaper editorials, at rallies for vote-buying local politicians in small villages, at the student meetings in late 1970s and early 1980s that journalists like Sanjoy Hazarika have written about. These are the bourgeois and rural theaters where the urgency to protect your land, your job, your language, your children, is perverted over the decades into a harsh brand of normalized nativism.

What’s tragically ironic about all this is that the children of Northeast should know full well what it is to be unwanted and marginalized. Consider the death of Nido Taniam. In Tehelka:

On 29 January, Taniam was at Lajpat Nagar [in Delhi] and asked a shopkeeper for directions to a friend’s house. The shopkeeper made jibes at his appearance, especially his bleached hair.

After a verbal spat, Taniam broke the glass door of the shop. The shopkeeper and his friends smeared chilli powder on Taniam’s eyes and thrashed him. Soon, the cops landed there and packed off everyone to the nearest police station. The dispute was resolved after Taniam was made to cough up Rs 10,000.

Surprisingly, the police dropped Taniam back at the same spot where the tiff had taken place. Once the cops left, the shopkeeper and his friends attacked him again. The police returned and this time both sides “amicably resolved” the dispute and even signed an apology letter.

After Taniam returned home, his friends claim that he complained of chest pain and went to sleep at around 6 am the following morning. Around noon on 30 January, they took him to AIIMS, where he breathed his last.

Nido was the son of a government official from the state of Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern-most state of the far northeastern corner of India, the vestigial bulb that hangs off the end of the sometimes-widening, occasionally contracting chicken neck. Northeasterners from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, and its sister states, who dare trespass into the mainland, are folding Nido’s death into the larger, troubling pattern of anti-Northeast racism in Delhi:

In February 2013, locals made racial slurs and attacked 10 Manipuri students at Katwaria Sarai in south Delhi. The police had refused to [act] . . . and the Northeast Support Centre had to intervene before a complaint was registered under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which attracts stronger punishment than simple assault charges under the Indian Penal Code. “Whenever we pass through a crowded street, people pass obscene comments like ‘How much for one night?’ as if we are prostitutes,” says Babina, a Manipuri student. . . .

[Assamese artist Utpal Borpujari:] “There is no representation of the history and the ethnic diversity of the Northeast in any school or college curricula. It’s not in history books and you don’t get to know about one whole part of India. Thus, you have people throwing around terms such as ‘Momo’ or ‘Chinky’. The Northeast is full of freedom fighters and other heroes.”

For a region that knows what it is to bear the brunt of stigma, to know the experience of marginalization: surely there’s some empathy to spare here. A call to re-evaluate how centers of power allow hatred to fester and bubble into an actual politics and policy. Surely there’s room in their hearts for the Rohingya, the “Bengali”? 

An alchemy of apocalypse in ‘True Detective’


As a caveat to this entire post, here’s True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto in The Daily Beast:

I’ve enjoyed reading people theorize about what’s going to happen because it’s a sign that you’re connecting. But I’m also sort of surprised by how far afield they’re getting. Like, why do you think we’re tricking you? It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years. The show’s not trying to outsmart you. And really if you pay attention… if someone watches the first episode and really listens, it tells you 85 percent of the story of the first six episodes.

Throat cleared.

In its first three installments, True Detective drenches us in atmosphere: a melange of religio-gothic horror, tinges of racial-class divide, the meaty scepter of modern theocracy, a wink at the supposed power of  state-sanctioned Christian rehabilitation. Are these the things that matter for puppet master Nic Pizzolatto? His show’s distinct blend of the macabre, its constant sense of dread—the swampland refineries looming in the background—even the devilishly comic banter (of which there is no shortage), suggest that, basically, this is it–the end is not only nigh, it’s churning away now. Here, 19 years after the murder of Dora Lange, we may well be living in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. True Detective is about the end of the world. The alchemy of the apocalypse.

If I understand the nature of novelistic television, True Detective‘s dreadful, gorgeous landscape are meant to inform how we understand the partnership of detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. Is their relationship a vector of sorts: a line that starts at a single point, zooming off into infinity in one direction? Or do Cohle and Hart exist on a continuum, some spectrum of human nature, their ramblings mean as proxies for competing remedies for reconciling the horror, callousness, and suffering of the human condition? Do we all have a little Rust and a little Marty in us, duking it out till the end of time?  

I can’t say I understand much of what Pizzolatto says later in the interview:

I think my serial killer’s personal pathology is wrapped in very culturally relevant symbols that may not be immediately apparent. Not just hunting, but the idea of woman as trophy to be stuffed and displayed. The idea of prayer, and one of the necessities of the prayer pose being the blindfold: in order to effectively pray you’re going to have to ignore some very basic facts about the world.

So to me it’s not just that Cohle and Hart are hunting for their savage id or their most destructive portion. It’s that the killer has some resonance in the kinds of shows we’re talking about. We only have the one murdered woman at the crime scene in the entire series. It’s not an unrelenting horror show. It’s meant to stand in for the universal victim in this type of drama. Because while I think we’re doing a good job of telling the story that this genre demands, I think we’re also poking certain holes in it and looking at where these instincts begin, both in the type of men that Hart and Cohle represent—and in ourselves as an audience.

On first glance, the image of the woman-as-hunting-trophy scans like an exploitative source of titillation. We see Dora through the detectives’ clinical gazes, and quickly come to grasp Cohle’s obsession with fitting the grisliness and symbology of her murder into ritual—to understand it as a by-product of that great sickness called religion. For Hart, it’s all just a bunch of crazy; dispense with the theorizing and simply follow the clues where they lead. It’s important to remember that the break in their case at the conclusion of episode 3 comes from basic shoe leather detective work. If anything, it seems to affirm Marty’s distilled, take-things-as-they-are sense of the world.

At the start of the series we don’t know the nature of Pizzolatto’s relationship with Louisiana, poverty, suffering, and violence, or with cultures of violence and wild depravity. It’s difficult to assess what Dora’s body means to him and the story. The antlers, the praying posture, Dora’s chalky nakedness, the blindfold, all seem like details included to to draw attention to themselves, perhaps in the same way that such details do in the world of a CSI. But we assume there is deeper meaning in all this for Pizzolatto, that those “very basic facts of the world” would seem to include the idea that there is hope for our most marginalized and forgotten.

There’s the meaning of the symbols for the detectives. Then there is its meaning for the murderer(s). And, then, there is its meaning for Pizzolatto, and, finally, the audience. Will Pizzolatto’s take on the genre end up subverting the idea of dead-woman-as-object? This is tricky terrain: aiming to use the convention with the full intent of upending how the convention is generally employed in “this kind of drama.”

Our capacity to forget about the Doras of the world should not only shame us. It’s what dooms us. Instead of confronting our failures, we subject ourselves to prayer, to pills, cheat on our loved ones then bathe in the guilt, as if it’s all some bizarre absolution for our moral failings. At least that’s what I want Pizzolatto to be saying.

For me, Cohle and Hart represent unique visions for coping with our civilizational, societal demise. Maybe that reading says more about me than Nic Pizzolatto (I guess that’s always the case with “readings). And I’m quite likely assuming far too much knowledge about our protagonists. What if, right now, all we know is what we don’t know…but, you know, still think we know? I’m prepared to be rebuffed, is what I’m saying.

I do want Pizzolatto to make a distinct choice, though. Each man and the world he’s constructed for himself is utterly flawed, and sometimes horrifically imperfect. These are mechanisms for coping with the worst sort of stuff the world has to offer. If this is a story about the end of decency and the permanence of suffering, circumscribed by the sheer necessity to cope, show me how to deal. I do prefer my television soupy and gray as all get out. But we’re only getting eight hours of Cohle and Hart; arcs, loops, thematic concerns, there must be some closure to these things.

It’s certainly brave, in its own right, to close a narrative with a hushed ambiguity, to end things by calling attention to the fact that nothing really ends, not really. But coming to expecting that out of storytelling as the current Golden Age has done is a sort of victimization, which is a part of the complex of conventions that Pizzolatto could, might, maybe, be seeking to deconstruct.

“Snubs” annals: the brutal ‘Captain Phillips’

Recall the moment in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep’s domineering, icy fashion magazine mogul Miranda Priestly reveals the awful truth to her condescending, ambitious young assistant Andrea, played with pre-Lapsarian pluck by Anne Hathaway: no one opts out of the fashion economy. Our choices–our lumpy blue sweaters, specifically–are pre-ordained, filtered through the sketchbooks and palettes of Oscar de la Renta, onto the runway models of Yves Saint Laurent, “down through the department stores and…into some tragic Casual Corner” where the suddenly shrunken Andrea fishes it out, in Miranda’s vicious telling of her assistant’s life-as-product. “It’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you…when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you,” Miranda explains, #realtalkily.

Her deft sketch recurs in a more terrifying iteration in Paul Greengrass’ tense and terse Captain Phillips, a reenactment of the 2009 hostage crisis in which an American shipping captain, brought to salty life by a gamely un-self-conscious Tom Hanks, was taken hostage by a crew of desperate Somali fishermen-turned-pirates, led by Muse, played with a compelling, all-absorbing desperation by the now-Oscar-nominated Barkhad Abdi. There’s nary a wasted frame, no time to spare on moments of human frailty or small tragedy that do not service the movie’s sense of propulsion.  It is an efficient, evocative piece of film-making.

This is not to say there is no room for sentiment in Greengrass’ universe. Only that he respects his audiences too much to force them to expend emotional energy on moments and characters whose role is either incidental or expository. There is the tragedy that drives his first Bourne film, the second in the series, versus the near-absence of Catherine Keener’s wife character in Phillips; the former drives the story’s momentum, while the latter ensures that the stakes and escalating tensions remain trapped in the claustrophobic confines of the Maersk Alabama’s rescue boat. This is narrative economy, practiced in its its purest form: squeezing out excess oxygen and moments that feel arbitrary or forced. Characters count, and service the narrative’s propulsion. And vice versa.

Phillips’ ordeal could have been told as the cut-and-dry triumph of ordinary, blue-collar American decency. That would be the made-for-television version, the work of a filmmaker who rejects complexity rather than one who folds it into the narrative to raise the human and moral stakes. Indeed, there is nothing easy about Greengrass’ rendering of these events. His interpretation relies on constant, mind-spinning swells between foreground and background. In the foreground are our protagonist and his captors. The background is vast: global systems of production and distribution, and the trimmed-down, terrifyingly efficient machine that protects, preserves, kills, and captures all that which threatens our system of capital.

Greengrass’ project in Phillips is to lay bare the brutality at work here, the awful power to devalue the human elements that make these systems go. The cogs in these networks include massive container vessels like the Maersk Alabama and its parent company, the Danish A.P. Møller-Maersk. And it is only becoming more massive: the company is set to debut a new class of ships, each of which is 1,312 feet long, 194 feet wide, and weighs 55,000 tons when empty. “The size of the vessels and the economies of scale they bring have made transportation a vanishingly small part of the prices consumers pay and made possible a world in which Americans eat bananas grown in Ecuador while wearing designer knitwear from China,” Businessweek reported earlier this year.

These ships haul loads of factory parts, iPads, clothes or, in the film’s case, food, much of which was apparently headed for NGOs in Africa. On the opposite end of the spectrum: the silent ubermensch of our special forces, policing the world and helping us avoid international embarrassments (i.e., the capture of a civilian like Phillips). These near-silent sentinels stand ready and able to calmly air-drop into chaos and pull off the seemingly impossible at a moment’s notice.

After all the blood-letting and terror of Phillips’ ordeal, the swiftness of the SEALS’ operation is so striking and impressive in its finality that it seems almost comical. The suffering of Phillips and his captors’ alike feels oddly disproportionate to the  suddenness of its conclusion. You wonder: what, precisely was at stake? And for whom, to warrant bringing the full might, power, and authority of the US war machine to bear? The reality Greengrass suggests is that avoiding a diplomatic disaster and staving off the subsequent humiliation is, really, what counts here. Sending a message that, yes, we can and will defend the sacred sovereignty of our global shipping channels, and resultant spoils of a thriving capitalist empire. The scenes featuring the SEALS recall one of the resonant themes of Jeremy Schahill’s ground-breaking documentary Dirty Wars: they are a brilliantly honed machine. It is scary stuff.

Where that leaves us, then, is unclear. We, the consumers, taxpayers, union-dues payers, fishermen, drug addicts, and tuition-owees, frequently desperate, stubbly, perhaps rounder in the gut than we’d like to be at the age of 45 or 46, jockeying for position, prestige, and respect among our peers?  Watching Captain Phillips, the insistent question for me was: does the global economy as it functions, with all its grinding financial gears, lack of capital controls and universal labor standards, interlinked economies, have a real place for, you know, the people it purports to service? Phillips and Muse appear to wind up where they do up because of forces largely beyond their control; neither man, the film argues, has much choice over his respective plight or station.

For Greengrass, my sense is that while individual choice–Phillips’ choice to try to play the hero and save his crew, Muse’s to maintain his pursuit of Phillips’ boat even after his fellow man pulls out–do matter, there is a strict limit on its impact. You can only act within the limits of a pre-determined data set. Indeed, people like Phillips and Muse–people like us–are data points for extraction, delivery, execution, akin to the hundreds of cargo containers loaded onto the deck of the Maersk Alabama. I suppose the question comes down to whether people and their respective needs, hopes, dreams, and economic realities, actually matter. Whether, amid the permutations of a global economic behemoth and the forces that protect it, there is space for their humanity. Perhaps in the Devil Wears Prada version, the message is something like: the world that manufactured and shipped that lumpy blue sweater is passionately disinterested in those who would wear it. 

Greengrass, of course, was “snubbed” at this morning’s Oscar nominations announcement, as was Tom Hanks. Still, the movie’s larger aesthetic achievements have been “recognized” with a Best Picture nod. Snideness aside, Hanks’ performance is somewhat inherent to the movie’s basic “best”ness: the brutal stakes and victims of the deliver-hunt-destroy global economy only feel real because of Greengrass and Hanks’ commitment to challenging the notion of Hanks-as-mass-consumption, a feel-good export of American good intent.

Months after seeing it, this movie has stayed with me. Perhaps because it dares to be messy, to confront viewers with the desperation dripping out of our most maligned and desiccated places.