‘Captain Phillips’ And The Problem With ‘Based On A True Story’

I finally caught Captain Phillips on the plane back from Berlin this weekend, at the time not even remembering that it had been nominated for a best picture. In terms of actual insight into the events it portrayed, it rated close to a zero. That is, unless you count Tom Hanks telling his hijacker, “You ah nawt a fishahman anymoah” as a particularly insightful statement (??). Great actor though, that Tom Hanks. Look at him act! Look at him act! I know, right? Such an actor. I assume that’s the only reason this film exists.

While Phillips is probably a bit worse than some of its faux factual forebears (for one thing, Paul Greengrass’s underexposed shaky cam cinematography doesn’t go great with a tiny headrest screen), it’s basically par for the same course as Lone Survivor, Argo, Parkland, The Iron Lady, etc. You know the type of movie. They purport to portray a real-life event, and you go in expecting some kind of insight, a new perspective, for something to be illuminated somehow, and instead you get a few chunks of things you already know braising in a stew of transparently bullshit embellishments. I know, I know, Argo was mostly a crowd pleaser (not even I could deny the obvious joy of watching Alan Arkin and John Goodman spout vulgar one-liners about old Hollywood), but did anyone actually believe that the Iranian Jeep chasing the departing plane down the runway at the end was something that actually happened in real life? Or that in Lone Survivor, that Marcus Luttrell was saved juuust at the nick of time, when a Taliban literally had his head on the chopping block when the good-guy Pashtuns showed up to save the day? Come on, not even your weird aunt with the email forwards is gullible enough to believe those scenes.

Yet they still insist on plastering “BASED ON ACTUAL EVENTS!” all over the posters and trailers as if it actually means something. And if the writers completely Hollywoodify a few scenes? Well, that’s just “dramatic license.” Look, if you’re going to lie, at least lie in a way that makes it a better movie. All the chase scene in Argo did was to yank me out of a story I’d been invested in up until that point. There are times when I’ll argue for dramatic license, but not when it’s just a license to be a hack. The question becomes, are you trying to tell a story or are you just trying to make a story seem like our generic idea of “a movie?”

I bring this up on Oscars week because there’s nothing Oscar loves more than a movie that feels like a movie. The King’s Speech to me is the ultimate Oscar movie, the ultimate movie that feels like a movie. The kind of movie that would win Best Picture at a parody of the Oscars. And what did we learn about the subject of The King’s Speech? Did we gain some valuable insight into his persona, or were we just content to watch Cinderella Man by another name for two hours again?

I can’t expect “based on a true story” movies to be 100% true, fine. But can I at least expect them to say… you know… something? It seems like they mostly do a lot of play acting things we already know and filling in the gaps with shit we’ve already seen. Isn’t it a problem when I get more out of the written epilogue at the end of Captain Phillips than I did out of the preceding two hours and fourteen minutes? Don’t you owe us a little insight into why Somalis might hijack boats, or why the Navy SEALs shoot the hijackers rather than letting the shipping company pay the ransom? “Delving schmelving! We’ve got Tom Hanks!”

Captain Phillips is the Patrick Stewart reading mean tweets of movies, compelling only because there’s a famous person in it.

In the days before we had actual footage and transcripts and audio and video and easily-Googlable first-hand accounts of events, I suppose this kind of storytelling had some value. By incorporating it into a narrative, people were exposed to it, at least in some way. Orson Welles couldn’t tell a story about William Randolph Hearst, for example, so he settled for telling one about Charles Foster Kane. And hopefully, we learned a little something about Hearst in the process. (Hearst, incidentally, would probably LOVE that last scene in Argo. I can just see him assigning his best cartoonist to draw the fleeing Jeep.)

Are they shielding us from the reality, or just trying to simplify the story? And if they’re trying to simplify the story, why? What’s the point of making a film about a “true story” if you’re just going to pipe it into some pre-fabricated mold of a Hollywood plot? I suspect the answer is “because they’re lazy and it’s easier,” rather than some nefarious conspiracy to pacify the public. Still, the negative outcome is similar. It’s a problem that goes further than just bad movies. It’s a dangerous thing to gradually and constantly bombard people with simplistic narratives. Even the Kardashians have their producers trying to shoo them into pre-fab sitcom plots, where they’re waxing each other like in 40-Year-Old Virgin. Great, so now I’m watching plots I’ve already seen re-enacted by people who can’t act? Moreover, can we really not be trusted with the actual day-to-day business of the fucking Kardashians? You wonder if our inability to deal with even slightest bit of reality is part of the reason every political argument feels like an epic battle between two obviously bullshit oversimplifications. Progress doesn’t happen until both sides can accept a little nuance, until a policy can fit an actual reality, not someone’s bullshit, pasteurized take on it.

We make 20 of these types of movies every year, like cover songs or vintage reissues, and we’re expected to get misty eyed and nostalgic for “classic filmmaking” every time, especially during Oscars season. Maybe that will never change, but I’m going to say it anyway: maybe it’s time we stopped congratulating people for doing great cover songs. Nostalgia for bullshit is not a valuable emotion.

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.