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Director Greengrass makes ‘Captain Phillips’ special

Despite the controversy over its accuracy, "Captain Phillips" carries more credibility over its version of a true story just because of its director. That, at least, is the argument I make in the reivew I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

It’s not smart to look to Hollywood for literal historical truths. Movie producers, after all, are far more interested in entertaining audiences than in pleasing university professors.

From D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” to Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” from Oliver Stone’s “JFK” to Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” – just to mention four among hundreds of examples – movies have stretched, twisted and, in some cases, imagined historical facts to fit the demands of their adopted storylines.

The latest movie to be accused of such fudging is “Captain Phillips,” director Paul Greengrass’ effort – with the help of screenwriter Billy Ray – to adapt the book "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea." Co-authored by Captain Richard Phillips, “A Captain’s Duty” relates what happened when a ship Phillips was captaining – the Maersk Alabama – was boarded in 2009 by a quartet of Somalis intent on extorting ransom from the ship’s owners.

According to a $50 million-dollar lawsuit brought by several of the crewmembers against the Alabama’s owners, Phillips’s book misrepresents what happened. The crew claims the captain ignored e-mail warnings of pirate activity, that he sailed the Alabama too close to the Somali coast and that he ordered lifeboat drills to continue even as pirates approached. Worse, that Phillips concocted his own story to cover up his incompetence. “No one wants to sail with him,” one anonymous crewmember told the New York Post.

Now, I’m not making light of these charges. And I’m certainly not in the habit of giving Hollywood a pass on substituting invention for truth. But in a business that typically treats truth as a plot convenience, director Greengrass has earned a little credibility. In films such as “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93,” Greengrass has succeeded in capturing real events by maintaining an evenhanded sense of fair play.

What that means here is that instead of making “Captain Phillips” just another testosterone-heavy celebration of American might, Greengrass delves into the lives of ALL the movie’s characters. He begins by showing us Phillips at home, a situation he then contrasts by showing the pressures brought to bear on residents of a Somali village by warlords interested in foreign riches. For Phillips and his crew, delivering their cargo means a paycheck. For the Somalis, the mission is far more dire: No riches, no food.

Yes, by using his standard hand-held camera style, backed up by a pulsing musical score, Greengrass ramps up the tension. By casting talented Tom Hanks as Phillips and novice Somali-born actor Barkhad Abdi as Phillips’ main foe, Greengrass creates a sense of authenticity. He adds to that sense by putting us in the midst of action when the Somalis storm the bridge, when most of the crew hides in the bowels of the engine room, and when the invaders are ultimately forced off the ship – but with Phillips as their captive. And we are with them when they are confronted by three U.S. Navy warships – complete with a complement of Seal snipers.

What happens next is a matter of historical record, one that even Hollywood can’t sabotage. And as the end occurs, Greengrass’ cameras make sure to tell the full story, which is far more horrific than it is heroic.