I was very surprised to see Captain Phillips on the Best Picture list this year, for a lot of reasons, among the least of which is that it is not a very good movie. Although it was undeniably, and surprisingly, a pro-American movie (another reason its Oscar nod surprised me), it is not really an American movie.
Captain Phillips is the story of the hijacking of a huge cargo ship, the MV Maersk Alabama. Four Somalian pirates boarded the vessel and tried to hold it for ransom, the first time in 180 years that an American-flagged ship had been hijacked.
There are two ways the story of the hijacking could have been made as an American—and much better—movie.
One was never, ever going to happen, which was to shoot the movie from the point of view of the pirates, to make it into a doomed-heist picture. Four desperate losers try a caper way out of their league and are inevitably crushed. Charley Varrick (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Blue Collar (1978)— you can tell from the release dates alone that movies like this do not get made any more. Maybe American society is getting more optimistic and wants optimistic movies. It may be telling that the last doomed-heist flick, Dead Presidents (1995), was aimed at a black audience. For whatever reason, people nowadays like cheerful heist pictures, like the endless Oceans. Even if you could get a green-light on one more downer crime flick, it would have to be about American desperate losers, not weird skinny foreigners.
Or the producers could have done the natural thing and made it a good-guys-beseiged-by-bad-guys movie. Mean, scary, armed pirates against plucky, determined sailors. The captain would be the useless time-serving bureaucrat. People love this genre; I love this genre! Everything from Straw Dogs (1971 and 2011) to Home Alone (1990) to Skyfall (2012). Heck, every Bugs Bunny short has this same plot. Our hero is home—or in his car as in Duel (1971) or Collateral (2004), at work, as in Die Hard (1988), or on his boat, as in Dead Calm (1989)—minding his own business, when the villain goes and starts something. Only Bugs actually gets the line of course, but every hero gets the scene where the same resolution is made evident: “Of course you realize, this means war.” Much excitement ensues.
So, in the good version of this movie, once the pirates board his vessel and take the bridge, our hero bustles around below the deck, exploiting what advantages he has, improvising weapons, enduring, and ultimately prevailing or dying in the attempt.
I particularly regret not seeing this version is because apparently, this is exactly what happened!
The hero of the real story was the chief engineer, Mike Perry. When Phillips surrendered the bridge, Perry took control the engine-room and shut down all power, even lighting to the ship. One of the pirates ventured below and Perry led him on a cat-and-mouse chase through the darkened corridors Perry knew well, and finally grappled with the AK-47-armed man, overcoming him and making him a prisoner.
Perry and his sailors had the advantage and could have captured the pirates, except that Phillips cravenly intervened, ordering his men to allow the pirates to flee on the ship’s lifeboat (Perry having sunk the the pirate’s own skiff), even giving them the cash payroll from the safe. The pirates took the lifeboat and the money—and took Phillips himself, perfidiously taking him hostage. You can almost hear Johnny Depp reminding them: “Uh-uh-uh: pirate!”
The movie that was made only spends about 30 minutes of screen-time on the cinematic aspects of the kidnapping. Instead, as its title would suggest, Captain Phillips focuses on Captain Phillips. How Phillips suffers in the cramped and pitching lifeboat! The producers invented an escape attempt to keep him from looking completely passive, but in the climactic scene, Phillips stands crucified at the bow-end of the cabin, asking in despair why the God-like US Navy hath forsaken him. Fortunately, at that moment, three SEALs with SR-25 sniper rifles deliver 7.62mm of redemption right through the skulls of the kidnappers. Deus ex machina, with the USS Bainbridge playing the role of machina.
Why did the movie-makers ignore the obvious, good story for the rather prolonged and dull one they chose? Mostly, bad luck. Phillips (and his ghostwriter) wrote a book, modestly titled A Captain’s Duty; the book got optioned and Phillips hired as an adviser. They could hardly portray him as the ineffectual timeserver he actually was. For one thing, they probably could not have gotten Tom Hanks to play such a role. They would have had to hire Paul Gleason, who played Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson, the suck-up martinet in Die Hard.
All this is not to say Captain Phillips is terrible. It is perfectly watchable. Hanks, having gotten his suffering-hero role, turns in his usual excellent job. In fact, the worst thing about the movie might be how easily it could have been great.