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From now until the Friday before the Oscars we'll be running daily pieces about why a film does or does not deserve Best Picture. Today Eric explains why Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips shouldn't be the movie that takes the top prize this year.
It was around this time last year that I wrote a "For Your Consideration" piece explaining why Ben Affleck’s Argo deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (and I was extremely excited when the film received the Oscar it deserved). My argument was that the movie did exactly what a truly great historical drama does: find a balance between the true story and fiction that allows the audience to understand the emotional truth of the reality while also being thoroughly entertained. There are once again a number of historical dramas up for Best Picture as well, but among them is a film that really failed where Argo succeeded. While Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is a smartly directed, often tense movie that I ultimately enjoyed, it is also very flawed and completely ignores a huge part of what makes feature film such an amazing medium: unending access to unreality.
The film is based on true events that everybody heard about back in 2009 because it was covered by just about every single news outlet in the country and analyzed to death. In April of that year an unarmed container ship captained by a man named Richard Phillips was hijacked by a group of Somali pirates. Reports of the time said that Phillips’ actions helped save the lives of the crewmen aboard his ship, and the situation was resolved when a team of trained Navy SEAL snipers were able to take out the hostage takers. On paper it’s not hard to see what made the story appealing to Hollywood, and it didn’t take long for the industry to sink its claws in, the high seas tale being optioned only a month after the events. As captivating as it was to follow the story in headlines, however, the reality is that what actually happened doesn’t have good narrative flow and as it unfolds breaks some very important storytelling rules.
Great as Tom Hanks is (my heart leapt into my throat during the final minutes of the movie as he was being examined by the Navy medical staff), he is stuck playing a protagonist who completely stops having an impact on the central storyline about halfway through the movie. Phillips made some very smart moves aboard his own ship that probably saved lives, and when put in the proper position he is shown to be very self-sacrificing, but once he is taken by the pirates into the lifeboat he loses all agency. His conversations with his captors end up having no effect on the outcome of the plot, and his job literally becomes "sit and wait in your assigned seat" while the Navy figures out how to solve the crisis. Given the title of the film, perhaps it would have been smart to include some fictional elements that could eliminate his neutrality.
Obviously I’m not asking for some kind of Hollywood bastardization that turns Phillips into John McClane, but it’s always possible to hit at the truth and importance of a factual story through fictional means. Maybe instead of Phillips’ constantly being unsuccessful in negotiating with the pirates, he is actually able to strike up some kind of deal with one of them. While things seem to be working in his favor for a while and he gets close to getting on the radio with the Navy, he ends up getting double-crossed and into an even worse situation than he was in before. While this didn’t happen in real life, it would have given the captain an actual active role in his own rescue and made the plot that much more compelling.
It’s hard to blame Paul Greengrass for his approach to the Captain Phillips story, as the film actually fits quite well with his body of work. While the director is now probably best known for his two brilliant entries in the Bourne franchise, he began his career as a documentary filmmaker and made two great based-on-a-true-story features in 2002’s Bloody Sunday and 2006’s United 93. What he created with the Captain Phillips story is a film that we really should have expected from the moment he signed on to make it. What I can argue is that Captain Phillips would have been a better movie and a more deserving Best Picture Academy Award nominee if made by a filmmaker who treated the source material less like scripture and more like inspiration. Ben Affleck, perhaps?