Shortly after the theatrical release of Captain Phillips, the New York Post published an article in which a real life crew member from the real life Maersk Alabama, the ship of the real life Captain Richard Phillips, alleged that the film was something less than completely faithful to the real life hijacking on which it was based. In the article, one of Phillips’ crew members anonymously asserts that his captain was not the hero that the film (allegedly) portrays him to be. (That is, in addition to alleging that Phillips is kind of an arrogant prick, the anonymous crew member also alleges that the film portrays Phillips to be a hero. A fair interpretation, but debatable. It’s pretty clear the fictional captain’s fictional crew also regards Phillips to be an arrogant prick. His heroism in the film seems pretty consequential. As in “out of his control,” not “substantial.”) The allegations make for a juicy little scuttlebutt, though the article’s account of what happens in the film (beyond Phillips’ so-called heroism) is itself less than accurate, making it difficult to regard the article as much more than high profile hearsay. (Besides, anyone who expects a Hollywood blockbuster to stand in for reliable historical record should probably stay away from the multiplex.)
Still, the article highlights a significant problem for films based on true events: Making a compelling story out of something that actually happened often requires that the truth be adapted and/or completely misappropriated. Sometimes that involves making a hero out of someone whose actions may in reality have been less than heroic. Moreover, knowledge of a film’s source material may be to its detriment, which is certainly a problem here. Even if you’re ignorant of the 2009 hijacking on which Captain Phillips is based, even if you’re unaware that the screenplay is adapted from the good captain’s memoir, you have the New York Post to tell you that, in real life, this Captain Phillips guy is kind of a jerk – to say nothing of the fact that he’s totally alive.
And the fact that Captain Phillips survived his ordeal ends up being a pretty inconvenient truth for anyone trying to make a movie about that ordeal. Of course, you can be fairly certain that the hero in any Hollywood blockbuster is going to make it to the end of the movie without getting himself (yes, himself) killed. But if a filmmaker threatens otherwise, you want that threat to be a credible one. In the case of Captain Phillips, the pirates are menacing enough, but all in all their menace is not real, especially once the action’s left the ship and the pirates have taken Phillips hostage on a stolen lifeboat. Aside from the pirates themselves, anyone whose cinematic mortality might have been in question is left aboard the Maersk Alabama, which sails away into its own sunset, cutting its connection to the rest of the story. And because this happens fairly early in the narrative, the majority of the film is spent with a character we root for simply by default. The only emotional currency he can use to purchase our investment in his future comes from his connection to a wife and family so superfluous we don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing their reunion with him at the end of the film.
None of this is to say that Captain Phillips is a bad film, or even to say it’s an unexciting one. Director Paul Greengrass is a consummate professional when it comes to this sort of deadly serious action movie, especially when it involves big budget historical re-enactment. He and screenwriter Billy Ray likewise do a fine job of avoiding the geopolitical in favor of the personal, focusing the story on human relationships and human emotions and how both may fare in crisis, largely eschewing the global forces that have contributed to these particular humans being flung together in the first place.
At the beginning of the film Phillips and his wife do share a few muddled and inconsequential words about the increasing speed of modern life, (which is ironic for a movie that features chase scenes involving a ship that couldn’t get a speeding ticket in a residential area.) We also get a glimpse of the pressures the Somali pirates have to contend with, but those too are later boiled down to the sort of human struggle we can all relate to. (Muse: “I got bosses. They got rules.” Phillips: “We <em>all</em> got bosses.”) Thankfully, the film doesn’t stress big global political themes any more than it has to.
And yet, in spite of its focus on the personal, the action isn’t so emotionally affecting. It’s exciting, sure. (And what excitement it does generate is due in part to editing – Academy Award winner and nominee, Christopher Rouse – as well as sound – editing, mixing, and score.) But it isn’t until the very end of the film that emotion is finally part of the picture, when at long last Tom Hanks gets his chance to emote for the camera. Up until that point Hanks plays Phillips fairly close to the chest, allowing him a sort of forced and awkward “grace” under pressure. And, as is appropriate for a character so taciturn, when the levee breaks, it all comes out at once. That eruption is easily the most emotionally charged scene in the film, all the more so because Hanks, as Phillips, is trying to plug the holes in the dyke even as the water comes gushing out all around him.