At face value the movie Captain Phillips is about all kinds of stuff: piracy, international relations, the global economy, financial disparity, a captain named Phillips, etc. But in its bones Captain Phillips is a story about two people trying their best.
The film, directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum), follows the 2009 hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates and is based on Captain Richard Phillips’ written account of the events from the book A Captain’s Duty. There’s been a bit of a ruckus stirred by the crew of the Maersk Alabama regarding Phillips’ heroic portrayal in the film and it is perhaps worth noting that the film never displays a black screen with those ominous, all too familiar words – “Based on true events.” Though it is emblazoned across every piece of the film’s promotional material, even the credits specify that it is based on Phillips’ book.
Not that any of that mattered to me, the viewer, within the context of the film itself, because when the credits rolled on Captain Phillips journalistic accuracy was the last thing on my mind.
The film’s first act follows two men, the aforementioned Phillips and the pirate Abduwali Muse, through their respective mornings. Where Phillips drives a minivan to the airport with his wife, Muse sleeps in a rugged shack on the Somali coast. Where Phillips chides his crew for overextending their coffee break, Muse and his village are urged, at gunpoint, to take miniscule speed boats out on the open seas and bring home a pirate’s bounty.
These back and forth sequences set an important precedent. Muse and his fellow pirates aren’t portrayed as villains in Captain Phillips. Muse is not the shark in Jaws. He’s the flip side of a coin. A man who, just like Phillips, sets to the seas to do what his life demands he do. For Phillips, that entails extended periods of time away from his family and dealing with difficult union employees. For Muse, it entails making a living on a commercially overfished coast as a pirate.
The film puts a lot of stock into honest humanity and characterization. Gunshots, for instance, go a lot further here than in most entertainment in an age where we can spend hours on end interacting with a digital world using only an RPG. The first time Phillips and crew hear a gun go off they’re terrified. The characters’ expressions change. The tone of the film changes. All of the sudden mortality is on the table and the film never treats that circumstance lightly.
The hijacking of the Maersk Alabama is tense. You certainly won’t be falling asleep during the lengthy cat-and-mouse sequence. But the final act of Captain Philips had me on the edge of my seat, unable to blink, flipping through a rolodex of every nervous tick and fidget available to my muscle memory.
Greengrass masterfully sets a realistic tone for Captain Phillips that gives human life weight. Just the threat of a gun is upsetting. As it would be in real life. Playing on such a realistic game board, when the pieces are finally set for the movies’ climax there is a palpable sense of dread and anxiety. One that stays with you after the film’s end.
But the highlights of Captain Phillips are two scenes bookending that climax. Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi turn out two of the finest, realest performances in my memory and each of them in their own moments absolutely cut to the core of me.
I’ve heard actors’ performances referred to as “vulnerable” in the past, but the description had never made sense to me until I saw Hanks and Abdi in their roles in Captain Phillips. They’re playing real people here and they take that seriously. At a certain point show-boating and bravery fade away and what’s left is raw and unsettling.
Shit gets mad real.
Barkhad Abdi was a limo driver with zero acting experience before he answered a casting call for Captain Phillips. If he doesn’t have a prolific career in the film industry ahead of him then the industry is broken.
I don’t know how accurate a representation of true events Captain Phillips is. I don’t know if everything the film portrays happened for real. I can count on one hand the people on the entire planet who could accurately answer that question. But I’ll tell you this much, Barkhad Abdi and Tom Hanks’ performances in Captain Phillips are about as real as a movie can get.
1. How important is it to you that a movie “based on true events” remain faithful to those events?
2. Should movies even bother claiming to be “based on true events” when there are inevitably adaptive liberties taken?
3. Is any of this even real?
For more on this year’s award-nominated films: