Posted on Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 by Russ Fischer
At this point, there probably aren’t many people who expect a feature film to be a 100% accurate depiction of events, even when it proclaims that it is based on a true story. The idea of dramatic license is well-understood, but there’s always a related question: when does dramatic license steer a project too far away from reality?
It’s one thing to make a film based on disputed story accounts, as is the case with The Fifth Estate, which subject Julian Assange has disowned as “based on a deceitful book by someone who has a vendetta against me and my organisation [sic].” But is it another to remap events so broadly that they deviate wildly from fact, even if the intent behind the changes is good?
In Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray, along with the cast and crew, use the story of the hijacking of the ship Maersk Alabama to tell a story about two men who represent different lives and cultures. It’s a great story, and it uses the story of Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama to raise very specific points and questions. But there’s one problem: some of the ship’s crew says the film doesn’t represent Phillips properly, and it paints a very incorrect picture of events.
The New York Post ran a piece containing interviews with members of Phillips’ crew. One anonymous seaman said, “Phillips wasn’t the big leader like he is in the movie… No one wants to sail with him,” he said, calling Phillips “a sullen and self-righteous captain.”
There are many allegations in the piece, most of which go back to the days when these events were originally reported, including that Phillips ignored a standard anti-piracy plan, and that he also failed to heed or act upon data showing the frequency of recent piracy in the region through which his ship was sailing. He’s called reckless, and the crew says that the selfless sacrifice performed by Phillips in the film (“If you’re gonna shoot somebody, shoot me!”) isn’t at all what happened. In short, the crew says that Phillips is propped up as a hero for narrative purposes, rather than because he actually acted heroically.
I tend to trust Greengrass, if not to tell an unvarnished version of the truth, at least to create something where a lie isn’t meant as entertainment. There is clearly a purpose behind Captain Phillips; it’s unfortunate that the purpose may be at odds with the truth.
Why not make a film that was inspired by the story of the Maersk Alabama rather than one that purports, in name, to tell the tale? That could come down to a lot of factors, and in the end it might simply be that all involved thought that Phillips’ story, or a version of it, was still the best way to get these particular ideas across.