Storytelling Lessons from Captain Phillips

*There are spoilers for the movie Captain Phillips in this post*

I saw the movie Captain Phillips last night.  To sum it up quickly, the movie is based on a true story of an American cargo ship that is hijacked by Somali pirates when traversing around the horn of Africa.  Having not read the book, I’m not sure how much of what is depicted is what really happened, but the movie takes an interesting turn when Captain Phillips is taken hostage by the Somali pirates and they are stuck in a lifeboat together.

If this had been a typical action movie and the pirates were depicted as one-dimensional, it still would have been an interesting movie, but it would have lacked the punch that it had.  One of the biggest storytelling strengths that this movie had was its ability to humanize the antagonists.  Muse is a young Somali man who is both trapped in a life of crime by bosses that demand money and who must set out to prove himself as a capable leader.

And it’s not just Muse that’s humanized.  I can’t remember all of the other characters’ names, but the youth is of particular interest to me.  He enters into this pirate venture with the wide-eyed idealism of youth and the belief in his own invulnerability.  The fear and terror in his eyes as the movie progresses holds the viewer’s attention and makes this youth very real.  The driver of the lifeboat is strong and confident, but fear chips away at him until he is just as scared as the youth.  And, like in real life, not all characters are the same.  The fourth pirate becomes more resolute in his belief that they need to go out with a bang.  He is violent and hot-headed.

There is power in portraying the villains this way.  Yes, they are people doing bad things.  But, they are not bad people.  For the most part, they are people who have made the wrong choices (or maybe never even had the opportunity to make the right choices), and the movie takes the time to highlight this.  These are people.  These are not cardboard cutout villains.

Though they are doing bad things, the realization that they are simply people whose lives have led them to this very moment, possibly due to circumstances beyond their control, suddenly makes it very hard to root for the death of the bad guys.  I wanted Captain Phillips to be rescued, but I didn’t want the pirates to die.

All of this, as it is, would make a great movie.  What made it a phenomenal movie for me, is that they not only humanized the villain, they humanized the hero.  Yes, to some degree, every movie humanizes the hero.  What made this truly exceptional was the Captain Phillip’s state of shock after being rescued and his overwhelming emotional breakdown in the medical ward in the final scene.

Far too often, books and movies depict the hero as near-invincible.  After a dramatic and traumatic event, the hero embraces his/her lover, they share a kiss, and they hobble off screen (or something to that effect).  I find it is very rare to read/watch fiction that shows the strongest hero at his/her moment of greatest weakness.  To cut this from the movie would have done it great disservice.

The breakdown was so real, so true, and so amazingly depicted by Tom Hanks, that I wish that movie had been an hour longer, to examine his attempt to recover and rebuild his life.  This is not a situation one can easily recover from.

And to end the movie at that point, leaving the viewer wanting just a little bit more, is an effective tool to create a satisfying end.  To actually follow through and watch Captain Phillips recover would have removed some of the emotional attachment to the movie.  It would have lost a little of its resonance.

Captain Phillips is an example of good storytelling, an example that has a lot to teach about telling effective stories that resonate with the reader or viewer.  It could have easily been an average movie, it was the skill of storytelling that made it a phenomenal movie.

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