Comparing Hostage Rescue Movies: Argo & Captain Phillips

Based on True Spoilers

Hostage Rescue Movie Captain Phillips compares to Argo
Hostage Rescue Movie Captain Phillips compares to Argo

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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J. Bryan Jones is a prospective writer-editor in both prose and graphic novel media. He created "Leather Wing Media" and currently lives in Los Angeles, CA.
Edited by Jordan, Misagh.

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  1. Yolanda

    Argo won the Oscar as a consolation of Ben Affleck’s snub in the Directory cat, not at all because it was a crowd pleasing, nail-biting docudrama. Hoping that this years winner is going to be dedicated on merit alone, not guilt.

    • J. Bryan Jones

      The Academy has a well-documented history of that. See my article comparing the Oscar favorites of last year before it was decided.

    • B Norris

      Has a great chance for lots of nominations but might not win that many. Could get editing, cinematography, both sounds, director, picture, Hanks, adapted screenplay, and score…

  2. I am sure both movies portray the hostage events very well. Although, sadly what CP does likely not portray is the plight of average somalis and why they turn to piracy. Somalia is in complete chaos; the legitimate government barely controls their capital let alone the country. Without any decent government there, there’s been a lot of toxic dumping and illegal fishing in Somalia’s waters, which has devastated the livelihood of many Somalis who survive on subsistence fishing. Many of them have turned to piracy as their only option; the vast majority of pirates are either simple fishermen or ex-militiamen for muscle from all the fighting going on there.

    Many of the Somali pirate groups take names that translate to things like “protector of the seas”; without an adequate Coast Guard to defend their shores from other countries just taking advantage of the situation, many Somali pirates see themselves as their own form of Coast Guard.

    Not that I condone piracy in any way, just saying that their situation is a lot more complex than the simple caricature of the African pirate.

    • J. Bryan Jones

      You clearly haven’t seen the movie since you make a false assumption. It does go into the pirates’ personal plight, though not as in-depth as toxic dumping. Even so, it doesn’t have to. Not every piece should be Moby Dick length and cover a subject in its entirety. Even the Iliad only covers a few weeks of a 10 year war.

  3. I love the casting of the Somali captain. Dude has some acting chops (hell, you’ve got to when you’re playing opposite Hanks). I’m glad they didn’t choose the most handsome bad guy they could find to play the leader like tons of other movies. He’s really puts that ferocity-from-desperation vibe out there that I’ve seen in real-life folks right before they go do somethin’ grimy.

  4. Sam Gray

    If you haven’t already seen it, I would recommend the Danish film A Hijacking, which presented a similar situation seen in Captain Philips (a cargo ship being hijacked by Somali pirates). In many ways equally tense and gripping as Philips, but for different reasons; it was low-key, and with a heavy adherence to realism (much of the action happened in the boardrooms of the Danish shipping company). I would have loved to have seen a comparison between these two films and the approaches each film maker took to exploring the issue of piracy.

  5. Tyle Mendex

    I don’t understand how a movie based on real events can be suspenseful if you know from the beginning how it’s going to end. To me, that ruins the movies no matter how “good” they might be.

    • Jenna Beck

      Wow. That’s kind of sad knowing that a small amount of detail can ruin an entire movie for you. It’s about the journey itself, not the destination.

    • I thought the same thing until I saw 127 Hours… I went to that movie knowing the main character was going to (SPOILERS) cut off his arm to escape and survive, since I was familiar with the Aron Ralston story… but Danny Boyle and James Franco made that story amazingly visceral, it made you feel like you were going through everything that the main character was… and led to some incredibly tense moments, even knowing he would be okay in the end…

  6. I wasn’t sure whether I would go and see Captain Phillips- I have issues with total downer films. However, you’ve made me excited to go and see it:)

  7. Jon Lisi

    Interesting discussion. I find that Captain Phillips differs because it doesn’t give us that hurrah moment at the end of the film like Argo. The final ten minutes in which Phillips breaks down is brilliant and Argo wasn’t daring enough to go there. In many ways, Captain Phillips is the anti-Argo.

    • Jacqueline Wallace

      I completely agree – what ruined my enjoyment of Argo was the way that the film kind of crippled into a ‘goodies’ vs ‘baddies’ scenario building up cheap tension with the chase scene when they’re on the plane. I was incredibly moved by Hanks in that scene where he breaks down showing his trauma. I thought it was really important to show this part of his character because it fully developed it into something very human.

  8. Shane Mendez

    Argo and Captain Phillips are both good movies, but there’s an edge that was missing in Argo. I hate the stereotypical anti-Hollywood rants, but Argo felt perfunctory. I can’t remember an especially memorable moment. It was effective, but it was like a nice meal. It was like an episode of Scooby-Doo: “Well that just about wraps that up!”

  9. One of the embellishments of Argo was how hesitant the Canadians were to consign the plan. The plan’s planning went forward without incident.

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