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Truth, Fiction, and Somali Pirates: 'Captain Phillips' vs. 'Stolen Seas'

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! November 19, 2013 at 4:24PM

One is a riveting Hollywood adventure, the other a searching and nuanced documentary, but "Captain Phillips" and "Stolen Seas" -- which, taken together, comprise the year's most engaging double bill -- traverse similar narrative and thematic terrain. Both ask, in every sense one might mean the phrase, where the truth lies.
Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips"
Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips"

By contrast, "Captain Phillips" renders the inaccessible immediate: Greengrass, a skillful hand when it comes to docudrama ("Bloody Sunday," "United 93"), revels in realism's jostle, even if it means sometimes crowding out the mundane aspects of the real. Based on the captain's reminiscences, the film follows Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) through the fretful hours of the Maersk Alabama's 2009 hijacking in a near-constant state of tension -- it left me wrung out like a tattered rag, weak-kneed from the excitement. It may also be something of a fabrication. (Slate's Forrest Wickman has an extensive analysis of the film's accuracy here.)

In the final estimation, each film deserves the other -- the whole that emerges from their two halves lends "Captain Phillips" context and "Stolen Seas" texture. The experience of each is better for the other's existence. Ishmael Ali proclaims himself a businessman and acknowledges that "piracy feeds a lot of people"; "Captain Phillips" shows young Somali men clamoring for space on the hijackers' boat and culminates in a series of stricken cries, as profoundly emotional as anything I saw at the movies this year. I cannot exactly pinpoint the truth of the matter in either case, but that's merely a way of saying that one man's imprecision is another's joy. 

"Captain Phillips" is playing in theaters nationwide. "Stolen Seas" is now available on VOD. Read TOH! contributor Bill Desowitz's "Immersed in Movies" column on "Captain Phillips," Dana Brunetti and Michael de Luca's comments on the controversy surrounding the film, and Tom Hanks' interview at the London Film Festival.

This article is related to: Reviews, Genres, Drama, Documentaries, Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.