News Column

NYFF 2013: Can real-life basis boost 'Captain Phillips'?

September 28, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 28--NEW YORK--Just before director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks unveiled their new verite thriller "Captain Phillips" at the New York Film Festival on Friday night, they made an unusual introduction.

"Many of the crew of the Maersk Alabama,"--Greengrass said, referring to the real-life hijacked boat on which his movie is based--"if they'd like to stand up..."

Several men toward the front of Alice Tully Hall took to their feet as the black-tie crowd roared appreciatively, standing for a full minute as the applause continued. Greengrass then welcomed from backstage the real life Rich Phillips, the title character who suffered a harrowing hostage ordeal in waters off the Somali coast back in 2009. The captain walked briskly onstage in a dark suit, pausing in front of Hanks, who leaned down to kiss his hand.

The moment underscored the power of contemporary fact-based stories--and the weapon that studios who release them have in their holsters.

Most people won't see the movie in the same theater as the crew from the ship, of course. But reading about that group or even knowing they're out there can increase an audience's appreciation in subtle ways. It's not just the characters who were brave but the real people, one thinks, people who very much continue to live and breathe, and if we support the movie we're in a sense supporting them.

OK, so maybe it's not that conscious. But it can play on our minds. Did it help, say, "Argo" that we knew a man named Tony Mendez wasn't simply a Hollywood creation but a real-life CIA hero who continued to travel the world and was even present at some of the film's award-season events? Without a doubt.

We'll see what effect it has here. The movie centers on Phillips, a low-key Vermont man who after decades of service as a commercial ship captain found himself and his crew of about 20 the victim of a hijacking by young, violent Somali pirates. As portrayed by Hanks, the crisis brought out a sense of courage and heroism in the otherwise workmanlike sailor. And if you didn't already salute a man who put his life on the line to protect his crew, there's a moment of quiet self-sacrifice a little more than halfway through the film that will make sure you do.

(It's worth noting that Greengrass' "United 93" traded on similar themes, with the obvious difference that that film's tragic ending and association provided a hurdle that this movie won't face.)

Still, real-life stories come with their own issues. Since at least a portion of the audience knows how the story ends, the burden lies with the telling, and on this audiences were divided. The movie played reasonably well at its big-stage NYFF opening-night venue--far better than "Carnage" in 2011, whose muddled reception sunk its awards and box-office chances--if not as strong as "Life of Pi" last year, which received a rapturous reception. Around the premiere afterparty there were those who hailed Hanks' performance but others who said they thought it was Greengrass' craftsmanship more than his storytelling that stood out.

In his remarks before the screening, the director emphasized the film's origins. "It's a tense story of events that really happened," he said. The "really happened" part will help the film. But audiences may ultimately judge it on the tension.

Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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