Pop Political Economy: Sahara (2005)

Hollywood does not have a track record of accurate or sensible portrayals of Africa in film. But that does not mean they can’t make a preposterous romp that somehow touches upon the key dilemmas of political economy in Africa. My personal favorite in this category is, without a doubt, Sahara (2005).

Consider awesomeness

Sahara stars Matthew McConaughey (before his current Academy Award-winning self but already in his “all-right, all-right, all-right” mode) as Dirk Pitt, the ultimate alpha male fantasy: ex-Navy seal, marine archaeologist, treasure hunter, classic automobile collector, charismatic, smart, irresistible to the ladies, and all-around good guy. Together with his inseparable pal Al Giordino – a crass, tech-savvy comic relief machine – Dirk follows the 140-year-old track of an old confederate ship believed to have sailed up the Niger river (you read right), and in so doing he manages to fight a warlord, help a doctor (Penélope Cruz with a thick Spanish accent) stop a plague, and thwart the plans of a shady European businessman.

Too much camp for you? Keep reading.

The real Dirk Pitt?
The real Dirk Pitt?

The movie is actually based on a novel by Clive Cussler, whose Dirk Pitt character has been a staple of airport bookstores everywhere for several decades (some day I will write about his even more preposterous spiritual successor, the improbably named Juan Cabrillo). Pitt is a poorly disguised fantasy alter ego for Cussler, himself a marine archaeologist under the banner of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), which happens to be the name of the fictitious organization for which Pitt works. Dirk gets the woman (a new one every time, in proper Bond tradition); he gets the treasure (up to and including the Titanic); he defeats the bad guy. That’s Dirk Pitt. Perfect beach reading for those times when you need to leave subtlety behind.

Sahara, the 2005 film, was an attempt to launch the series on the silver screen, but was ultimately doomed by two factors: first, the movie went wildly over budget, even becoming a case study of how not to do Hollywood productions; second, not that many people actually went to see it. To its credit, Sahara was so expensive because it was shot mostly on location and with practical effects, which means that the final product simply will not age, as do most summer blockbusters that go heavy on the computer-generated imaging.

The movie has its share of absurdity, of course, like a powerboat trip up the Niger river from the Gulf of Guinea all the way to Mali in a couple of days and with no passport controls; or the fact that everyone in Mali seems to speak English fluently, including small-town madrassa teachers and tuaregs. However, in its defense, the film actually goes for a bizarre but not entirely off-target whirlwind tour of African political economy, to wit:

  • A powerless World Health Organization unable to stop the spread of an epidemic due to its lack of capacity and will to intervene.
  • A warlord-president who rules half of Mali while fighting a tuareg insurgency (preposterous in 2005, but not so much in light of recent events).
  • A corrupt French businessman who bribes the warlord-president in exchange for the illegal use of his land to store toxic waste.
  • An American embassy unwilling to get embroiled in the local politics of an African crisis.
This is pretty much what I look like after fieldwork

Sahara’s portrayal of African political economy is actually a bit outdated: more 20th than 21st century, which is only natural considering the novel was published in 1992. For instance, there are no aid or humanitarian relief workers, no Chinese businessmen, and no cell phones. But the less nonsensical parts are actually kind of interesting: the Françafrique scandals have proved time and again the extent of corrupt ties between French elites and African dictators; the Malian civil war has demonstrated the ability of the military to disrupt weak states; and international organizations are often wrongly equipped to deal with major health crises in Africa.

Plus the action sequences are a blast.

All that makes Sahara an over-the-top political-economy romp for all – geeks and nerds alike – to enjoy.