The Captain Has the Con: Fact and Fiction in Captain Phillips

 /  Nov. 14, 2013, 7:30 a.m.

Captain Con

From cars that explode at the drop of a hat to hackers capable of accomplishing virtually anything with a functional laptop, film tends to demand a certain suspension, often freely provided, of the audience’s disbelief. Ironically enough, it’s the films that purport to either be “based on” or “inspired by” a true story that tend to attract the most scrutiny from critics, experts, and general audiences. The latest target of such scrutiny is Columbia Pictures’ Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain of the Maersk Alabama merchant ship during its 2009 hijacking by pirates off the Somali coast.

Since its release, the film has attracted a good deal of Oscar buzz, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s a tightly crafted, relentlessly intense thriller anchored by a powerful performance by Tom Hanks, albeit one in which his Massachusetts accent may need some more work. Given the ubiquity of the story in the press at the time of the hijacking four years ago, there is a good chance that many viewers will already know the ending, if not an outright blow-by-blow account. Despite this, the film does an excellent job of maintaining an ever-escalating sense of tension throughout, despite a running time that exceeds two hours (in a  brilliant move, Greengrass reuses the closing moments of the musical score from his 2006 film United 93 in the climax to great effect). And while Hanks may be the only bona fide star amongst the cast and thus the primary target for praise, acting is strong across the cast, especially by Somali-born Barkhad Abdi, in his film debut as the pirate leader Abduwali Muse.

But the controversy surrounding this film is about its veracity, not its quality. Specifically, critics take issue with its portrayal of the titular captain, his relationship with the ship’s crew, and the circumstances that led to his having been taken hostage at all. In the wake of the film’s release and subsequent critical acclaim, a long-standing lawsuit filed by the Maersk Alabama’s crew against the greater Maersk Line Company has resurfaced. The crew alleges that the hijacking could have been prevented had Phillips heeded warnings of pirate activity and plotted a route further away from the Somali coast. In an interview published by the New York Post, crew members, some speaking under the condition of anonymity, also pushed back against the idea that Phillips acted heroically in any regard, and his kidnapping was not an act of sacrifice for his crew, but rather a byproduct of a botched prisoner exchange after the crew managed to subdue one of the pirates.

By way of an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit, Greengrass has admitted to having glossed over some of the specifics of the hijacking and subsequent standoff as a natural side effect to condensing a five-day ordeal into two hours. However, he pushes back against the idea that he and the other filmmakers deliberately misrepresented the events to portray Phillips in a better light than he deserved, and indeed, the film provides a much more nuanced take on the entire situation than the film’s most ardent detractors might lead a prospective viewer to believe.

The press may hail Phillips as a hero, but neither the film nor the man himself ever do. The film’s PR may have played the hero angle, but the film makes it plain that the relationship between Phillips and his crew was contentious at best, and it also depicts his reception of piracy warnings before the ship is actually attacked. Much as in reality, Hanks’ Phillips maintains that taking a more circuitous route would only have delayed the ship and exposed the crew to more danger, as pirates operating from “motherships” would still be able to attack ships further away from the coastline. And indeed, Phillips’ capture isn’t depicted as a selfless sacrifice, but as an unfortunate consequence of negotiations breaking down.

Similarly, it doesn’t paint the Somali pirates with a black brush of villainy, as other critics have claimed. While commentary on the broader complexities surrounding institutional instability in Somalia and the international community’s role in shaping the country’s current state of affairs is absent, the film doesn’t gloss over the abject poverty that drives some Somalis to commit acts of piracy to survive. Muse and his men are clearly being forced to act by powers beyond their control, and while the portrayal certainly makes him out to be a harsh and sometimes violent man, his attack is shown to be born out of outright malice. Abdi’s Muse has a palpable sense of regret as the film moves towards its conclusion, and when he tells Hanks’ Phillips that he has no intention of killing him and that the entire proceeding is just business, you believe him. There’s a strange sense of grudging respect between the two “captains” throughout the film, even as the situation continues to deteriorate and it becomes increasingly unlikely that either of them will come away from the confrontation with what they want. The film does a good job of engendering sympathy for most of the pirates despite their role as the villains of the piece.

Given the film’s ending, which will remain unspoiled here despite its dominance in the press four years ago, it is easy to dismiss Captain Phillips as a jingoistic Hollywood fluff piece that eschews facts for drama. But to do so is to do a disservice to the work of the filmmakers who have crafted a very gripping piece of cinema. The viewer should research the situation, especially the root causes of Somali piracy, after seeing the film. Taking Greengrass’ film against the record, it is very difficult to say that the vitriol engendered by the artistic license taken in this film is justified.

Mickey Desruisseaux


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