Cap'n Crunch

There are up-sides and down-sides to movies based on real life events. If it twists too many facts for the sake of entertainment, it can come off as contrived and pointless. If it hews too close to bare facts, it can be boring. When it comes to non-fiction thrillers like Captain Phillips, there's a strange additional perk: Anti-predictability. Not unpredictability - that would be not being able to foresee what comes next in a story. In many fictional action movies, the beats and twists are repeated so often that any seasoned movie-goer can tell what's coming next. But in non-fiction, there is no super-spy that can wriggle out of every dangerous situation. There is no handy hacker that can break into the system in fourteen keystrokes. In real life, both the good guys and the bad guys are fallible.

So when Somali pirates take over Captain Phillips' (Tom Hanks) ship, the characters being bound to realistic reactions made it impossible to tell what was about to happen, and the overall suspense of the movie increased. Phillips is no badass; he has to keep his crew safe and buy time until military assistance arrives, and he can only do that through wits, pleading, and negotiation. The movie is also helped by the fact that the pirates aren't two-dimensional baddies. They don't hijack ships for the fun of it, and their desperation and pressure from an unforgiving boss is palpable.

Not everything works. Hanks' accent slides around a bit, there are a couple of overly melodramatic beats, and of course, it wouldn't be a Greengrass movie without some unnecessary shaky-cam. Still, I wound up enjoying this movie a lot more than I thought I was going to. It was surely entertaining. I'm not sure that I'd put it in contention for Best Picture of the year, but it being so is what spurred me to see it in the first place, so mission accomplished on that front.

I'm not sure how many liberties were taken between the facts and artistic license regarding this story, and the movie should be credited with making those seams invisible. I can't tell what Hanks did that Phillips didn't, and it's the believability of the series of events portrayed that makes this film really work. It's non-fiction that manages to be a lot more thrilling than the testosterone fantasies churned out in most Hollywood potboilers.

Captain Phillips: B+


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