The Conversation

Maersk Alabama crew denounces 'Captain Phillips'

When I reviewed "Captain Phillips" over the weekend, I mentioned the stripped-down, matter-of-fact documentary quality of the production.  As a matter of fact, it turns out the crew of the Maersk Alabama thinks the movie contains few matters of fact, complaining to the New York Post that it's no more accurate than other loosely-based-on-something-that-really-happened fare, like "The Butler."

It's the portrayal of the Captain and the circumstances of his kidnapping that evidently galls the crew members (who, it should be noted, have been working on a $50 million lawsuit against the shipping company for the past few years, in which Phillips is a defense witness.)  The crew alleges that contrary to his heroic portrayal in the movie, Phillips was reckless and arrogant, making just about every mistake he could possibly make during the pirate attack.  The movie shows him as a selfless leader and conscientious manager, drilling his reluctant crew in security procedures just as the Somali hijackers appeared on the horizon.  In reality, the crew says he was forcing them to run a pointless fire drill, and didn't seem terribly concerned with the approaching pirates... even though the ship had already been threatened the previous day, an incident the screenwriters decided not to show their audience.

The movie really soft-pedals Phillips' determination to remain close to the pirate-infested Somali coast, portraying the surly crew as somewhat cowardly and unreasonable for asking him to change course... but in truth, the ship was receiving email warnings about increased pirate activity that included advisories to head further off the coast.  (The movie shows Phillips receiving one email that talks about pirate attacks, but doesn't explicitly advise him to change course.)

Some of the other crew complaints are matters of debate, but these are documented facts the movie inexcusably fudges in order to keep the narrative simple... while presenting itself as an entirely truthful, comprehensive account of the pirate attack.  As I mentioned in my review, it was already a remarkable story filled with improbable events, real life providing a narrative that Hollywood screenwriters would want to tighten up.  It looks like they gave into that temptation after all.  

Taking Phillips' word over the crew in areas of genuine uncertainty is one thing, but deliberately editing and discarding verifiable facts to serve a heroic narrative is something else.  At least "The Butler" included some teeny tiny fine print that quietly explained it was a fictionalized narrative "based on" real people.  The cynic will say that everyone should know better than to get history from Hollywood.  Fair enough... but obviously everyone does not know better, not by a long shot.


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