Comparing Hostage Rescue Movies: Argo & Captain Phillips
Based on True Spoilers
There were some standouts films in 2013, most coming late in the year. One such film depicted the remarkable true story of the Maersk Alabama container vessel’s hijacking by Somali pirates in 2009. The movie Captain Phillips, named for the real-life hero of the story, received universal acclaim with a 95% on review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes. With its recent Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture –Drama, it commands the attention to be compared with last year’s historical American hostage piece, Argo -which won Best Picture at both the Academy Awards and Golden Globes in 2012.
Argo followed the undercover rescue of six USA diplomats from Tehran during the tense 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis. The dire situation of the fifty-two hostages taken from the US Embassy captivated the world’s attention while six secretly escaped to the house of the Canadian Ambassador. A joint effort from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Canadian government succeeded in their endeavor, returning the six back home safely and covertly. Had they failed, not only were lives at stake, but it would have damaged the USA and Canada internationally. In the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, the situation also had international stakes, but not nearly as palpable. The lives of the crew including Captain Phillips were certainly at stake; however, it began a new precedence. Until then, a United States ship had not been seized by pirates since 1815. Had the pirates been successful in reaping any bounty from their mission, it would create a mindset in their people that would lead to many more ship captures.
The events in Iran and off the Somali coast ended similarly through different methods. Both true stories were remarkable with smooth talking heroes behind it all. In Argo, CIA agent Tony Mendez is central to the rescue by planning and implementing an ingenious “bad idea” of posing himself and the six in hiding as the crew of a pretend science-fantasy movie “Argo” on a location scouting mission. Where diplomatic catastrophe between the US and Iran caused the crisis, diplomatic cooperation between the US and Canada averted further disaster and hypothetically saved lives. Oppositely in Captain Phillips, Richard Phillips constantly puts his own body in the line of fire to save his crew and manipulates the pirates into situations of disadvantage. His wit, much like Argo’s Mendez, salvages the best from the situation as possible and outsmarts his antagonists. Phillips ends up being the sole hostage aboard a lifeboat where his fate ends up in the hands of the USS Bainbridge and Navy SEALs. The Navy takes a meticulous firm hand of the situation and three marksmen take simultaneous shots, killing Phillips’ three remaining captors. Where in Argo and in the Iranian Hostage Crisis are resolved without violence, in Captain Phillips, procedure, bravery, and military execution provided the best possible outcome for its situation.
As with all true-story pieces, both films’ historical accuracy became called into question. Argo is full of half-truths and embellishment. Most controversially, there is debate over the seeming downplay of Canada’s role in the CIA-Canada joint effort dubbed the “Canadian Caper.” It must be noted, however, that the CIA’s involvement was entirely secret until 1997, so perspectives may be skewed in thinking Canada did it all. More bothersome as a movie, much of the imminent danger and confrontations with Iranians are transparent fabrications. For as much danger as there was, the movie took liberties in order to put the crew in the closest case scenario in which they could still get out unharmed. Captain Phillips had far fewer inaccuracies, but one large omission. According to crew members, Phillips and Maersk took the vessel recklessly close to the Somali coast against advisement for a day’s worth of fuel. Supposedly, Phillips said that he would not be intimidated by the threat of pirates. The details have not been verified. No events in the movie after the Alabama took route have come under scrutiny. However, the Academy tends not to take any measure of historical accuracy into account when casting votes for Best Picture.
The level of acting was vastly different in these two films in which Captain Phillips blows Argo away. Tom Hanks shows again why he is a legend and one of the best choices for the top actor in the world with his portrayal of Phillips. The beginning in his home with family pictures on the wall sets Phillips up as someone the audience would know, perhaps their own father. Hanks delivers even the undemanding lines convincingly in helping to make Captain Phillips one of the most realistic and believable movies concerning modern ships at sea. Hanks’ most powerful moment comes at the end when he is rescued and being examined by a Navy corpsman. His shock and inability to address the corpsman’s routine, professional questions and subsequent breakdown is a spot on depiction of the real thing. The Golden Globe nominated Barkhad Abdi for Best Supporting Actor as the pirate leader Abduwali Muse makes the audience forget that he is not actually a Somali pirate. In Argo, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Victor Garber are great in their usual fashion. In the lead role of Tony Mendez, Ben Affleck is actually the weakest part of the movie. While Affleck’s direction was excellent, either the role was better suited for someone else or the filmmakers felt there was not a place for Affleck to display superb acting ability.
When comparing the movies Captain Phillips and Argo, they share the dire situation of hostages, rescue, and lives at stake. Putting qualities of the films against each other shows that resolution of each true story yields different lessons. In most award voters’ eyes, the concept of diplomatic failings and cooperation of Argo are better than the protocol, tactics, and bravery of Captain Phillips. When historical accuracy and believability matters, Captain Phillips is superior as well as in the field of acting. Both films deserve praise, and whichever is better is up to the viewer.
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