Is “Captain Phillips” One Big Lie?

By | October 21, 2013 | 0 Comments

Capt. Phillips (right) thanks Cmdr. Frank Castellano of USS Bainbridge

The film “Captain Phillips” stars Tom Hanks in the docudrama of a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, that was hijacked by pirates in international waters off Somalia. When the event occurred, the SEALs and other Navy personnel who rescued Phillips were hailed as heroes, and Richard Phillips himself was hailed as a brave survivor.

I read Phillips’ book about his ordeal, as well as news accounts. I thought the film was well-made, and Hanks’ acting was superior. The film was never presented as a documentary, but as a drama based on reality. Nevertheless, some of the crew members are now suing the shipping company, and – perhaps on the advice of their attorney in order to strengthen their case – are calling the film “one big lie,” a comment what is widely reported in the media.

But is the film “one big lie”?

● The film shows the Maersk Alabama hijacked by pirates off the Horn of Africa. It was.

● The film shows the hijackers as Somali pirates. They were.

● The film shows the pirates working for a Somali warlord. They were.

● The film shows the ship evading the pirates the first time. It did.

● The film shows pirates overtaking the ship the next day. They did.

● The film shows four pirates boarding the ship armed with AK-47s and pistols. They were.

● The film shows the ship’s crew armed only with fire hoses, because of ridiculous regulations. They were.

● The film shows most of the crew hiding in the engine room. They did.

● The film shows the crew capturing one pirate. They did.

● The film shows Capt. Phillips boarding the lifeboat with the pirates. He did.

● The film shows the crew releasing the pirate they had captured in hopes of exchanging him for Capt. Phillips. They did.

● The film shows the pirates reneging on the deal and leaving in the lifeboat with Capt. Phillips. They did.

● The film shows the destroyer USS Bainbridge and two other Navy ships arriving. They did.

● The film shows one pirate boarding the Bainbridge, hoping to arrange a ransom. He did.

● The film shows Capt. Phillips unsuccessfully attempting to escape by jumping into the ocean. He did.

● The film shows the three remaining pirates beating Capt. Phillips and repeatedly pointing guns at him. They did.

● The film shows three SEAL snipers spending hours trying to get all three pirates in their sights simultaneously, so Phillips would not be shot. They did.

● The film shows the SEALs successfully shooting all three pirates, despite the rolling of the Bainbridge and the unequal rolling of the lifeboat. They did.

● The film shows a dazed, injured Capt. Phillips being rescued by SEALs. He was.

● The film shows a female Navy Corpsman treating Phillips for his injuries. She did. In fact, the Corpsman in the film was not an actress but an actual Corpsman.

So was the film “one big lie”? No, it was a remarkably accurate, though somewhat fictionalized, portrayal of a real event.

Apparently the chief complaint of the critics is that Capt. Phillips did not heroically volunteer to enter the lifeboat to spare his crew. But that is not what the film shows. The film shows Capt. Phillips being reluctantly pushed into the lifeboat by the pirates, who were pretending to arrange an exchange for their man. But the pirates reneged on the deal and left with Phillips. To the best of our knowledge, this is exactly what happened.

So I repeat: How is the film “one big lie”? Why are the media, even conservatives on Fox News, so eager to accept that the film is a lie? Can’t an American merchant captain be depicted as a brave but battered victim? Must he be depicted as a coward to please the critics?

Indeed, the precision and dedication of the three SEAL snipers is underplayed. If I had not read the book, I would not have understood the necessity of shooting – and killing – all three remaining pirates simultaneously. Otherwise, the surviving pirate would surely have killed Capt. Phillips. If I had not read the book, I would not understand the incredible precision and patience of the SEALs, who lay for hours with their eyes glued to their rifle scopes – and then, when finally all three pirates were in sight, hitting all three despite the motion of the ship and the lifeboat, at a distance of about 125 meters or 136 yards.

Phillip’s life was saved by the SEALs patience and precision, which the film downplays to the point of ignoring it. So again I ask, where is the “big lie”?

This regrettable tendency to downplay American courage and skill, and to emphasize American misdeeds, is nothing new. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised to see that British director Paul Greenglass depicted the Americans in a favorable light. True, he showed the Somali pirates in a sympathetic light, as victims themselves – victims of brutal warlords. But the pirates’ brutal treatment of Capt. Phillips left no doubt in the minds of the audience as to which side was the one to deserve our empathy.

The reason I was pleasantly surprised was that in a prior film, “United 93,” Greenglass almost achieved his impossible aim of showing moral equivalence between the hijackers of Flight 93 who wanted to crash in into the White House or the Capitol on 9/11, and the passengers and crew of the airliner. He showed both groups preparing for the flight, just as in this film he showed both the pirates and Capt. Phillips preparing for the voyage of the Maersk Alabama.

But there was a difference. In this film, Greenglass stuck to the facts reasonably well. But in “United 93,” he virtually ignored a dramatic and real incident. In the film, as the passengers prepare to rush the flight deck, someone invisible says in a barely audible voice, “Let’s roll.”

But in fact, Todd Beamer was a passenger on United Flight 93. What happened was verified by the telephone supervisor with whom he spoke. They recited the Lord’s Prayer together, and he made her promise to tell his wife and sons he loved them. He then said his timeless words:

God help me. Jesus help me. Are you ready? Let’s roll!

There are some who question whether this conversation actually occurred. There are also some who question whether the steel beams of the World Trade Center could be weakened by exposure to the intense heat generated by hundreds of tons of jet fuel on fire. Apparently these people didn’t grow up in a farming community, and never saw a blacksmith heating a horseshoe red hot, then shaping it with a hammer and tongs.

But speaking of questioning, I question why Greenglass – who after all was making a theatrical movie, not a historical record – chose to omit the Todd Beamer incident, which was dramatic and verified. I question why Hollywood so often portrays the American government as evil schemers, and the American military as brutal Neanderthals. If you doubt this, consider the “Bourne” series, one of which was directed by Greenglass.

No, “Captain Phillips” is not “one big lie.” It is a dramatic and reasonably accurate portrayal of real events. But if you are looking for big lies, look no further than the typical Hollywood depiction of the American government and the American military.

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