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It’s not hard to see the attraction of the “Based On A True Story” label. Everyone has heard that truth can be stranger than fiction, and there is legitimately something amazing about the fact that a story from our reality can be entertaining enough to compete with our wildest imaginations. But this sort of cinematic storytelling has its handicaps. If a gripping true tale is too well-known and widespread before it gets the movie treatment, then a filmmaker can wind up singing a song that everybody has already heard. It’s this conflict that becomes the greatest problem in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, a largely thrilling tale of piracy, bravery, and heroism on the coast of Somalia that is ultimately hampered by its own true story.
Greengrass is no stranger to crafting dramatizations of real events, capturing both the Irish civil rights protests of the 1970s (Bloody Sunday) and the tragedy of September 11th, 2001 (United 93). The material of his latest movie suits him perfectly. In April 2009, Captain Richard Phillips (portrayed by Tom Hanks) was navigating a container ship off of the east coast of Africa when the vessel was hijacked by pirates. Armed with quick thinking, good training, and impressive courage, Phillips was able to protect his crew, but put his life on the line doing so. Aided by Billy Ray’s screenplay, Greengrass squeezes out every last thrill that the story has and generates an exciting atmosphere with his trademark intense cinematography, but becomes handcuffed executing the truth, resulting in a bloated third act that could stand to lose 10 to 15 minutes.
A problem with an easily explainable reason, the lag is caused by an idling protagonist who has no real power of his own to move the plot forward. Phillips is kidnapped by the pirates and taken hostage on a lifeboat, and suddenly the character who has been leading us through the entire story stalls out and leaves the situation to be resolved by external forces swooping in to the rescue. Keeping the pieces together and preventing an all-out crumble are the performances by Hanks and newcomers Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman as two of the four Somali pirates, but the entire sequence feels somewhat hollow and an overt attempt to get as many details right as possible.
Hanks gives a legitimately strong performance that anchors the story, and audiences will have no trouble connecting with the captain even in the most dramatic moments. Phillips isn’t a particularly dynamic or exciting character, mostly defined by his sternness and state of calm in the face of danger, but the actor seamlessly melts into the part with just a greying goatee, a polo shirt and a pair of glasses, completely defying his A-list star status by disappearing into the role from the very first scene. By the very end you feel the entire weight that has been slung on to Phillips’ shoulders; in the final moments of the film Hanks goes into emotional overdrive, and the results are gutting.
But it’s almost impossibly hard for good acting to completely patch over flawed storytelling. The film’s dedication to telling the entire true pirate saga from hijacking to rescue balloons the running time to nearly two hours and twenty minutes, and leaves extremely little time for any kind of substantial background about the key characters. When Phillips and the pirates are locked up together on the lifeboat movie-goers are left to connect to the obvious danger of the situation and not much more. Spending some real time to explore the conditions in Somalia or Phillips’ home life in Vermont would have been an easy way to add significance and impact, but it instead keeps itself on the play-by-play path.
Just like the story it’s based on, Captain Phillips is dramatic and exciting and Greengrass’ direction and Hanks’ performance alone make it worth seeing. But one has to wonder how much better it could have been with a less strict, by the book approach.