This week saw the release of Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks. Based around the real story of Captain Richard Phillips, an American who was kidnapped by a group of Somali pirates when they besieged the cargo ship he was in charge of which lead to a four day sea chase featuring the US Navy, there have been arguments abound regarding the Hollywood portrayal of the truth. The film resolutely marks Phillips as a hero, sacrificing his own personal welfare to save his crew, whilst those present on the ship view things very differently. Outraged at this portrayal, crew members have spoken of Phillips’s refusal to follow guidelines to sail 600 miles from the Somali coast to avoid attacks, instead sailing just 240 miles from the coast. They have also claimed that rather than sacrificing himself, the Somali pirates double-crossed the crew during a hostage exchange and Phillips was forced unwillingly into the lifeboat, cutting him off from the crew and safety.
Ultimately, only those present on the day are able to truly know what happened, and even then adrenaline mixed with a life threatening situation can distort the truth for different people, resulting in several different versions of one story being presented (see Rashomon (1950) for more information). This is not the first time that the issue of factual presentation on film has been raised as an issue. In fact almost any film based on real events has the inevitable chorus of voices echoing across the globe, stamping their feet demanding that ‘IT DIDN’T HAPPEN LIKE THAT’! So when it comes to big screen outings for real life events, does the truth actually matter?
I am fortunate enough to have never had my life serialised for the big screen, so I can confidently say that I believe that in most cases, the truth does not matter. The wonderful caveat stated before most films based on real life events, ‘BASED on a real story’ says everything that we the audience needs to know. Things will appear smoother, character flaws will be ironed out and the hero will be practically saintly. If the film pointed out that Phillips put not just himself, but his entire crew in danger by sailing 240 miles from the Somali coast rather than the 600 that had been recommended, the audience would not have the same kind of affinity with him as they do when he is just unlucky enough to have his ship targeted and this affinity is important. Tom Hanks has essentially made a career of playing the average Joe who has mettle beyond his appearance and this is the person we would all like to be in a life and death situation. We therefore relate to the hero as a kind of kindred spirit, flawless as we see ourselves, even if in reality we’d be the ones cowering in the corner hyperventilating and crying for our mothers.
So whilst the exact story can be hard to portray and to sell to audiences, where these films do need to be careful is in representing the villain. In the past, cinema has made the inexcusable misjudgement of painting anyone against the inevitably white and inevitably American hero as a villain without a cause; someone wholly and purely evil. Massive positive steps have been taken away from this in recent years, with films like Argo and Captain Phillips showing the perpetrators as desperate and angry individuals and groups fighting back in the only way they know how. It is important to have two sides to these characters not only from a moral perspective but also because audiences are aware and expect depth that has been lacking previously.
Ultimately though, if we wanted to see a film about the differing views of what happened that day on the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, we’d be flocking to see the documentary about Captain Phillips, not the film based on the book Captain Phillips wrote about his own experience which was only ever going to be a flattering account of his behaviour. It must be infuriating for the crew to watch a film about a man who they say put their lives at risk portrayed as a hero by the world’s most famous actor, but by making this film the facts have more chance of gaining an audience. The internet can be a wonderful place, full of all kinds of stories and when people search for Captain Phillips they are finding the crew members’ version of reality as well as the Hollywood version, which can only be a good thing and allows the wider public to make up their own minds.
This is not the first time a story has been potentially factually misrepresented and certainly will not be the last. The big business of Hollywood simply isn’t interested in the nuances of a story, they are not interested in collating everyone’s individual experiences and creating the most accurate film and nor should they be. The audience wants to be entertained and the truth can only be partially represented as a result. If you want the nuances of human nature and the fallibility of memories, watch a documentary. If you are after a tense thriller superbly executed and acted, which perhaps isn’t entirely accurate, the Captain Phillips is the one for you.