“Based on a true story” can be a difficult cinematic proposition for a number of reasons. The truth, as well stated, is often far more nuanced than what is presented onscreen. Just placing the word “based” in front of the phrase “true story” feels immediately disingenuous. Creatively, filmmakers establish the idea that liberties have and will be taken with the story. It’s not a true story—just simply based on one.
The filmmakers who excel in this area are the ones who understand their obligation to revealing the realities of a true story. Paul Greengrass is a director who seems to have almost perfected this pursuit, and his new film, “Captain Phillips,” is another fine example of his amazing craftsmanship.
Most people know Greengrass for his work on the “Bourne” franchise and the prominent “shaky cam” action he brought to filmmaking. His two installments, “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” showcase excellent pieces of action espionage. But the true genius of his work shows in films like “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93.” Here, he takes real events and manages to cut through the clutter to find the heart of what makes the stories interesting. “Captain Phillips” adds to the list of examples as exceptional. Few filmmakers seem comfortable and adept at finding humanity in the most inhumane scenarios; Greengrass is one of them.
The story of “Captain Phillips” has been well covered by the media. A cargo ship sailing around Africa was taken hostage by Somali pirates. The U.S. Navy got involved, which led to a precarious hostage situation that dragged on for weeks. The inevitable violent conclusion ended yet another piracy incident that seems all too prevalent in international waters.
Greengrass’ movie could have taken many different angles on the story devolving into melodrama. He exacts his frills-free approach, and lets the action and the characters tell the story; it’s almost like the filmmaker is institutionally averse to cheap button-pushing techniques.
Phillips (Tom Hanks) leads his vessel through tumultuous waters and almost immediately the cat-and-mouse game begins. A group of Somali pirates stalk the ship, and Greengrass deftly moves back and forth between pursuer and the pursued to give the audience glimpses of both crews as they deal with the rising tension and potential threats. There’s a real sense of dread that permeates every frame of “Captain Phillips.” If someone told me one of the most tense, nail-biting movies of the year would involve a gigantic freighter trying to duck and weave a small boat of no more than four men, I’d have called him crazy. But the execution of these scenes is flawless; it’s as thrilling and tense as any moment in “Gravity.” Once boarded, the crew of Alabama is taken hostage and the next stage of this chilling tale begins. Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is a wonderfully complex villain desperate to make a name for himself, a product of both tragedy and entitlement.
The film has three very distinct and well-structured acts. The first gives us the chase. The second details the kind of psychological battle of wills, as the pirates deal with the difficulties of trying to turn their catch into profit. Much like the dog who chases the car, what would he do if he ever caught it? There’s a sense of size and scope to the second act—a handful of men aboard a giant ship desperate to assert some kind of control in a rapidly deteriorating situation. Control becomes a fleeting concept that neither Phillips or the pirates can grasp. It’s an ugly chess game that paralyzes both sides with doubt and loss of confidence in their next move.
It’s in the third act where the film achieves greatness, when the pirates take Phillips onto a lifeboat in a last ditch effort to survive—convinced a winning scenario can be played. It’s a master class in claustrophobic filmmaking. The same kind of skills he exhibited in the plane cabins of “Untied 93.” Watching the situation devolve as all parties begin to realize the hopelessness and futility of their actions can be heartbreaking. “Captain Phillips” is really a story of desperation. The desperation of both Phillips and his captors, both under the constant threat of death.
I don’t know how much of this”based on a true story” is true. There are a lot of articles written about how the real-life Captain Phillips ignored warnings and exhibited careless behavior that put the Alabama in harm’s way. Greengrass manages to make these desperate men believable and utterly watchable.
Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi turn in amazing performances. “Captain Phillips” easily ranks one of the best movies of 2013 and an emotional sucker punch.
Starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, John Magaro
Directed by Paul Greengrass