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Real-life drama gives big-screen thrills

‘Captain Phillips’ based on recent events

POSTED: October 17, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Movies based on real recent events can be tricky. “Captain Phillips” is based on a true story, but as is often the case, it’s debatable how truthfully the film tells the story.

Which leaves us with two very different ways to consider the film.

Purely as a viewing experience, “Captain Phillips” is taut with tension that builds to a breathtaking crescendo. Even the epilogue, the few final scenes after climax, are enthralling.

Director Paul Greengrass has a gift for creating a sense of authenticity, and his films are shot and edited to be as lean as possible. There are no wasted moments in a Greengrass film.

Some viewers complain about his (over)use of shaky, handheld camera and relentlessly rapid editing, but when that style is used to tell a plausible story, it lends the film a palpable realism.

Just as he did in “United 93,” Greengrass creates exactly that matter-of-fact tone in “Captain Phillips.” The movie briefly introduces us to Capt. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), a family man who complains to his wife (Catherine Keener) about how difficult and dangerous the shipping business has become.

We then jump to Somalia and meet Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a wire-thin young man who steals to survive. Muse leads the small pirate crew that will soon hijack Phillips’ cargo freighter, the Maersk Alabama.

The contrasts between the two lead actors are fascinating. Hanks is one of the most accomplished living actors on the planet, while Abdi is acting on screen for the first time. Amazingly, I’m not sure which actor gives the stronger performance.

Abdi’s character is both menacing and desperate. Abdi portrays both sides of the character but also gives Muse a sympathetic humanity. And he equals Hanks’ charisma.

Hanks’ and Abdi’s characters subtly bond over the course of the film and offer poignant parallels. Phillips captains the huge Maersk Alabama, while Muse captains a pirate skiff. The two men bear the weight of similar responsibilities, with totally different things at stake.

Greengrass was smart enough to not reach for some grand social statement, instead letting his lead actors do the work. That he was brave enough to place so much responsibility in the hands of an amateur actor is remarkable.

It’s worth noting, too, that one of the movie’s most powerful scenes — the scene that will likely win an Oscar for Hanks — was improvised. After they shot the scripted final scene and decided it didn’t have the impact Greengrass wanted, they improvised a replacement scene using crew members of the real U.S.S. Bainbridge interacting with Hanks. That sort of filmmaking rarely happens in Hollywood movies.

We have to remember, though, that Greengrass is also the director of “The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” and other action movies. And when he works in the action genre, he has a history of blatantly manipulating his audience. He does it again in “Captain Phillips.”

As the third act progresses, the adherence to cinema vérité storytelling disappears, and it feels more and more like a Hollywood action movie.

This is good and bad. It’s a shame that the sense of authenticity is destroyed, but it’s still a suspenseful action movie.

But here is where “Captain Phillips” is especially problematic.

The movie portrays Phillips as thoroughly heroic. He is amazingly resourceful and cool-headed even with a gun pointed at him, and he does everything possible to protect his crew. Many of those details are verifiably accurate.

However, the movie barely acknowledges the importance of other crew members’ heroic acts. The movie might be more credible if it didn’t exalt Phillips as the sole hero.

Also, some crew members of the real Maersk Alabama have filed a lawsuit alleging Phillips ignored warnings and made decisions that put them in harm’s way to begin with.

My advice is to forget “Captain Phillips” is based on real events at all. It’s too good of a movie to let the truth get in the way.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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