A hero or good-guy protagonist is always more interesting if he has weaknesses or flaws of some kind. If you can portray a basically honorable fellow with problems or vulnerabilities, it always enriches the flavor of the character and the portrayal both…no? Which is why I was intrigued when I read about possibly erroneous assertions by Maersk Alabama crew members that the real-life Captain Richard Phillips, portrayed by Tom Hanks in Paul Greengrass‘s Captain Phillips, may have ignored or unwisely dismissed reports about Somalia pirate threats prior to the 2009 hijacking and hostage crisis.
It may be, as noted, that these allegations are untrue, but if I’d been in the shoes of Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray, I probably would have seized upon this material as it’s always more engaging when you have a slightly blemished, less-than-true-blue hero.
In a recent Reddit discussion Greengrass said he’s “confident that Captain Phillips did not take an irresponsible route along the coast of Somalia and ignore a specific warning, as alleged in the press. We spoke to every member of the Alabama crew bar one, all of the U.S. Military responders that played a leading role in these events, and thoroughly researched backgrounds of the four pirates and the issue of Somali piracy generally. And I’m 100% satisfied that the picture we present of these events in the film, including the role playing by Captain Phillips, is authentic.
“The route [Phillips] took was similar to that taken by many ships of many nationalities at that time and since,” Greengrass explained. “The problem of piracy at that time was that pirate bands had begun using motherships, which enabled them to strike at ships throughout the Indian ocean, up to 800 miles plus out to sea, if not further. The film shows clearly Captain Phillips receiving warnings about pirate attacks, putting into place security measures onboard ship. The film also shows a vigorous debate with some members of the crew who wanted the ship to deviate from its route in order to prevent attack, and I show Captain Phillips (as I believe occurred) arguing that there was no point deviating the route, because pirate bands with motherships could attack them wherever they went.
“At the end of the day, it is easy to make anonymous accusations against a film. But the facts are clear. Captain Phillips’ ship was attacked, and the ship and the crew and its cargo made it safely to port with no injuries or loss of life. Also, the fact is that Captain Phillips went into the lifeboat in order to ensure the safety of his crew, because thereby he insured the pirates left the ship. The fact is, Captain Phillips then endured a five-day ordeal at the hands of his kidnappers that very nearly resulted in his being killed. That’s the story we told, and it’s an accurate one.”
I accept Greengrass’s statement. He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. But if I was Ray I would have seriously considered inventing stuff that made Hanks’ Phillips look a little less than perfect. Hanks always plays guys who are decent, kindly, stalwart and fair-minded, and that’s pretty much what he’s playing in the film. If he was portrayed as maybe being just a little bit of an asshole, I would have liked Captain Phillips all the more.
The one thing that bothered me was the ridiculous absence of an armed security force on the Maersk Alabama at the time of the hijacking. This was due to rules about firearms being allowed in various ports in the area, I’m told, but that rule or restriction has since been rescinded or modified.