From Defoe to the East India Company, Horatio Hornblower to Admiral Nelson, the British Empire had saltwater in its veins; Ezra Pound spied in the Old English poem The Seafarer “the English national chemical.” The United States, not so much. The Fifth Fleet is no joke, nor is Moby-Dick. But if US global power has a place in the national imagination, it does not reside at sea, where every previous lord of the world system “over the whale’s acre, would wander wide.” America’s national chemical features a covalent bond of automobile and uranium compounded with banker.
And yet three of Hollywood’s prestige offerings, the kind that open festivals and inaugurate Oscar season, are prodigiously maritime: All Is Lost, Captain Phillips and Gravity, a displaced story of shipwreck and drift. The latter two have already featured in these pages in Stuart Klawans’s eloquent measure of their cinematographic and narrative stakes. But—what’s up with all the boats?
The overlap is far more precise than boats, and more noticeable. Each film has its own particulars and interests; one need not discard them to recognize how forcefully each offers up for our identification a singular white body, in a lifeboat, on the cusp of death.
Two are weathered, a bit decrepit. Those are the men. Sandra Bullock is preternaturally fit; Hollywood is no country for old women. What these three share most decisively is their triangulation of national archetypes: Redford’s “Our Man,” the consummate Californian; Hanks’s Phillips, the flinty, competent New Englander; Bullock’s Ryan Stone (she may as well be named “Apple Pie”), once a capable Midwestern mom, sailing not to Byzantium but to Illinois.
These types summon not just any America but mid-20th-century Americana, without reference to the non-Caucasian—a vision that was kitsch even in its youth. It is a vision from beyond the cinémathèque, ideological to the core. Here, it does a certain work: it summons a racialized vision of American power and security wherein the unbearable whiteness stands for the lost moment of unsurpassed productive and military power, as if one were the truth of the other. Once upon a time, we had happy days. We were safe in the suburbs, mighty on the roads, a mood captured best by the Brit Gary Numan: “Here in my car I feel safest of all.” Now we are creased, tired, old. That empire is besieged, adrift—at sea—hemmed in by pirates and jetsam.
Each movie sets this national allegory in its own constructed world. Two telltale objects manage nonetheless to slip from one story to the next: the shipping container and China. They go together. The uncertain rise of China as world economic power, at once threat to the declining US empire and potential savior of global capitalism, rests on its capacity for making and distributing low-cost consumer goods overseas. The hustle and flow of international circulation into which Phillips’s Maersk Alabama is pitched, hauling the multimodal freight boxes that have radicalized global supply chains, is now a space of anxiety, and pirates are its literal and figurative embodiment. (The role of Danish company Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping concern, in any negotiations, and its arrangement with the US military, go entirely unmentioned, a hole punched in the narrative.)