'Captain Phillips' fudges facts when it comes to the actions of the protagonist

captain phillipsThe facts, as they stand, are these. On 8 April 2009, the American cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama was 300 miles off the Somali coast. A general warning had been issued by the US authorities to all ships, and a specific one to the ship’s captain Richard Phillips, asking them to keep at least 600 miles between them and piracy-ridden Somalia. Captain Phillips chose to ignore the warnings in order to chart the fastest course to Mombasa. They were boarded by four pirates, aged between 17 and 19. Phillips was taken hostage, but the rest of the crew, led by First Engineer Mike Perry, managed to hide and disable the ship. According to the accounts of several crew members, an intermittent gun battle ensued, lasting 33 hours, after which Perry and his men captured one pirate. They exchanged prisoners – allegedly at the request of Captain Phillips – but the pirates grabbed Phillips and dashed off in the ship’s lifeboat. They attempted to reach Somalia, but were immediately faced with the might of the US Navy.
Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, the cinematic account of the first hijacking of an American ship since the 19th century, tells a slightly different story. For one, no mention is made of the fact that Phillips endangered his crew by ignoring the advisories. In fact, on a radar display, the Alabama is shown significantly to the east of the commercial shipping route. His crew, a substantial portion of which has since joined a lawsuit against Maersk for Phillips’ recklessness, is jittery about being in troubled waters. Their completely reasonable fear is put in stark relief to Phillips’ Hollywood leading man grit; they are shown as fearful jobbers hiding behind union regulations and are told they signed up for this (no, they didn’t). Their resistance, in truth largely the result of Perry’s ingenuity, is shown as Phillips improvising and sending directions to his crew through cryptic hints.
In all other aspects, the film remains faithful to real events, taking very few liberties even where they could justifiably have been taken. Captain Phillips only fudges facts when it comes to the actions of Phillips himself. That isn’t particularly surprising, considering that the film is based on Phillips’ memoir of the hijacking, which has, like the film, been criticised by crew members as inaccurate and biased.
Now, it’s nobody’s argument that films based on real life have to remain faithful to the exact sequence of events. But there has to be justification for the fictions; they have to work to make the plot more compelling. By making the story all about Phillips, especially by having him issue the instructions in the crew’s resistance of the hijackers instead of showing it as a United 93-style desperate battle, Greengrass passes the chance to show genuine human drama in favour of making his protagonist look good.
What Greengrass mines for his drama are not the hostages, but the pirates themselves. And it is in Barkhad Abzi’s performance as Abduwali Muse that we get anything resembling a believable three-dimensional character. Muse is, like his accomplices, a teenager rapidly coming to terms with how far over his head he is getting. (Comparisons can and have been made to the Tea Party during the government shutdown.) Those last few moments, with the giant spotlight (of the USS Halyburton) squarely on him, show a boy being asked to become a man, but who doesn’t quite know how. By contrast, Tom Hanks seems too assured in his portrayal of Phillips, too often preening for the Oscar jury by injecting feeling that might look good on camera, but doesn’t somehow seem honest enough to make a truly relatable character.