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Review: The “true” story of Captain Phillips

**Note to reader: this movie is based on the true story of the Maersk Alabama being overtaken by Somali pirates in 2009.  In discussing the events on which this movie is based, I will discuss the ending of Captain Phillips.  If you are not familiar with the events and wish to view the movie without further familiarity, you may not wish to read any further.  That being said, the movie was produced with the expectation that most people will be familiar with the story, and therefore knowing the ending will likely not detract from your viewing experience.

Many argue that a movie can be of high quality and inaccurate at the same time.  Though I should be a stronger supporter of this phrase, I find it difficult to reconcile within my own mind.  Therefore I am going to split this review into two sections: what we see and what we know.

This is what we see on the screen.

Captain Phillips begins in Vermont, where our titular hero (Tom Hanks) reviews his travel plan around Africa and drives to the airport.  In a cross-cut, we see an unnamed Somali (we later learn his name is Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi) wake up in a shack to a warlord’s arrival in the village.  Through subtitles we see the warlord threaten the villagers over their lack of income, and insist they go “get a ship” right away.  Under duress, Muse gathers a crew and loads up his small dingy with supplies.

Rich Phillips arrives at the shipping container, briefs his new crew, and demands that due to heightened levels of piracy in the area, they go the extra mile to secure the ship at all times.  Once they are underway, this matters little.  The ship is approached by the Somalis several times before they succeed in boarding, where they then undertake a cat-and-mouse game with the hidden crew.  Phillips tries to “play games,” as Muse repeatedly warns him not to do, to save his crew’s lives.  In the face of certain peril for his crew, Phillips offers his body as an assurance, putting himself between the Somalis and the Americans, only to find himself kidnapped on a lifeboat and in hot pursuit by the U.S. Navy.

Director Paul Greengrass, best known for United 93 and two “Bourne” movies, crafts Captain Phillips in the style of a gritty thriller that disavows stylized action.  It works perfectly for Phillips, given the “real life” feeling and content of the film.  Phillips is tense throughout and Hanks is perfectly cast as the everyday guy trying to protect human life in unexpected and dangerous circumstances.

This is what we know from the news.

Only a few years ago, national and international news covered the story of the American container ship taken hostage by Somali pirates.  After boarding the ship and stealing money, the Somalis took Captain Rich Phillips hostage in the Maersk Alabama’s lifeboat for five days.  The fates of the pirates and the crew match those in the film Captain Phillips.  However, there are some concerns in regards to its accuracy in other areas.

The crew of the Maersk Alabama is currently suing Rich Phillips for reckless endangerment, asserting that he ignored piracy warnings and deliberately sailed into dangerous waters in an attempt to shorten the trip.  This is not emphasized in the film, though it does show Phillips receiving a warning about piracy in the area he will be sailing.

There’s a second possibly uh-oh, and it could be a doozy, depending on your perspective.

After Rich Phillips was taken hostage on the lifeboat and survived, he wrote a book about his several-day ordeal.  The book described his first-person experience: the fear, the threats, the mindset, the survival.  When pitched to movie executives, it probably sounded like a thrilling, ultimately uplifting tale.  The problem with this is that the movie is not presented in the first person.  The audience views the movie outside of Phillips’ experience, and therefore what is highlighted is not always the inspiring tale of survival, but the ethnocentric portrayal of the Somali-American interactions.  Whether or not portrayal of the Somalis is fair is up to each viewer to decide themselves.  Did they demonize the Somalis too much or not enough?  On one hand, the film begins with the Somalis in their home village and explains their difficult decisions in deciding to engage in piracy.  On the other hand, the size and might of the United States Navy is emphasized, and most of the pirates meet a sad fate, which the film portrays as necessary.  One could argue that the events actually happened, and therefore any series of events that seem pro-US or anti-Somali are simply pro-justice and anti-piracy.  It is certainly a difficult portrayal, regardless of audience sensitivities.

Overall, this movie ranges somewhere between “fine” and “pretty good,” depending on what kind of emphasis you place on accuracy and geopolitical fairness.  Ultimately some people will be unable to extract the outside cultural events from the events of the film, but for others, Captain Phillips is a taut thriller about a heroic everyman, and Hanks’ portrayal (and strong Boston accent) make this a movie worth checking out.

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