Captain Phillips is the kind of edge-of-your-seat action thriller that Hollywood does better than anyone else, which is why it’s one of the best American films of the year. If you’re looking for depth of character or complex themes, this is not your movie. But it can teach screenwriters a lot about how to please the mass audience, the single most important skill in mainstream movies.
Captain Phillips comes from the increasingly popular genre of memoir-true story. Like Argo last year, this film structures real events so that the story is more dramatic than most of the fiction films it’s competing against. This is no small achievement.
The screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals, And Dangerous Days At Sea” by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, is a textbook example of how to combine the action and memoir forms to get the best out of both. Not surprisingly, director Paul Greengrass of Bourne Supremacy, Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 is getting all the attention, partly because of the auteur theory. But it’s also because people erroneously believe that a true story is already “written,” it just has to be filmed. And there’s no doubt Greengrass does a great job. But the real key to the success of Captain Phillips is the incredibly tight script.
The memoir-true story genre appears to be the easiest of all forms because all you have to do is list events. But events and plot are not the same thing, not by a long shot. In fact, memoir-true story is in many ways more difficult to plot than fiction, precisely because the writer is restricted by those very events. If you want to achieve a basic truth, you have to remain faithful to what happened. But real events don’t normally have a natural dramatic build. So you’re caught in a terrific bind.
This is why the memoir genre in a Hollywood movie almost never stands on its own. Writers combine it with other genres, typically detective and thriller, to give it form, build and punch.
The restriction of real events dictates a number of techniques the writer must know to be successful (see the Memoir-True Story Class for details). For example, memoir puts even more emphasis than fiction on the story frame, which is where you start and where you stop. Do you go wide, to show an entire life, or do you go narrow, to find that one moment that defined everything? Also, one of the first steps a good writer takes when writing a memoir is to figure out the battle scene. This gives you the greatest conflict and most natural dramatic endpoint toward which every other event in your story can focus.
In this, original memoir writers Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty and screenwriter Billy Ray were fortunate. Their true-life story not only had a real battle, it was as good a battle as you can get. Yes, it was a big conflict. But the battle also pulled in huge international forces that made the stakes much higher. Even more importantly, it was intensely personal, a mano-a-mano fight to the death within the tight space of an enclosed lifeboat.
With the battle scene clear, screenwriter Billy Ray faced the key decision of the entire writing process: whether to do this memoir primarily as an action story or as a thriller. The primary genre determines the structure of the story, and if you make the wrong decision you will most likely ruin the premise.
Action and thriller often go together in Hollywood films, because they both put the hero in extreme danger. But the biggest difference between them is in how they handle the opposition. The key question in the thriller is about who the real opponent is. Is the suspect guilty or innocent? The key question in the action story is about how to defeat the opponent.
Writing Captain Phillips as a thriller would have meant hiding the real opponent, and bringing in a bigger, deadlier opponent after the hero has defeated his initial enemy. While this would have given the story some real advantages, there were a couple of reasons why this was not the way to go. First, the events did not lend themselves to this method of plotting. Second, the writer could not provide the opponent with as much detail, and so would have made him more of an evil cartoon.
By making this an action memoir, Ray set up a crosscut structure leading to a vortex point. Two essentially equal characters come into increasing conflict in a progressively smaller space ending in some kind of explosion. And that’s exactly what Captain Phillips is.
This structure creates a pressure cooker effect on the audience that, if done properly, will leave their nerves as ripped up as the hero’s. It also allows the writer to make the opponents human beings instead of the typical foreign villain. When Captain Phillips says to his main opponent, Muse, “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people,” Muse replies, “Maybe in America, Irish, maybe in America.”
Every genre decision you make also has its costs. Notice that going the action route inevitably hurts the plot. Unlike thrillers that hide much of the opposition, thus giving the writer plenty of reveals, action stories usually display the powers of the opponent right up front. Muse isn’t going to surprise the Captain or the audience with what he can do. (I was surprised, however, by how badly the cargo ship was defended).
Without a lot of reveals, the action story relies on intense punch-counterpunch in the middle of the story to create its plot. The action story is like a great fight, with two equal boxers going toe to toe in a twelve round slugfest. And the main technique is pressure. You put it on, release it for a moment and then you put it back on with even greater pressure than before.
Ray works these techniques of the action genre to perfection. Every story event brings the Captain and Muse closer together. Every story event represents an increase in tactical expertise. Every story event puts the Captain under progressively greater pressure all the way to the final moment. This stuff is beautifully directed and edited. But the individual events and the sequential building of those events is in the script.
I can’t finish this breakdown without commenting on the final scene, which has one of the most unique and powerful examples of great acting that I can remember. Everyone knows that Captain Phillips survives his ordeal, but if you want to avoid learning the details of the last scene, stop reading NOW.
Obviously, actors don’t get any better than Tom Hanks. But the question is: why is he able to knock it out of the park in this one scene? The first part of the answer is that, once again, it’s in the script. And I don’t mean the lines the writer gives him to say, which are little more than a few groans and cries as he tells the ship doctor how he’s feeling. No, what sets it up is the structure of the entire script leading up to this one moment.
This brilliantly constructed story has been an ever-tightening vice that not only puts the hero under intense pressure, but the audience as well. When that pressure is suddenly released on this man, and on us, I defy anyone in the theater not to shed a tear. Actors typically thank the director for helping them achieve a great performance. They should be kissing the hand of the writer.
But there’s another reason this is such an amazing scene, and it has to do with the contrasting acting styles of the two actors within it. One of them is Tom Hanks, a gifted and highly-trained actor who can express a torrent of deeply-felt emotion. But what kicked this scene into the stratosphere is that he is playing opposite a real-life Navy corpsman, played by Danielle Albert (IMDB). She’s not acting here. She is talking to him and caring for him as she would if he were the real Captain Phillips. She’s a professional, a military doctor. Her tone is flat. She’s clearly trying to help a man who came this close to dying. But she knows that to do that she has to remain calm.
It’s the contrast with Albert’s flat, “realistic” delivery that allows Hanks’ pain and fear and release to reach into the very heart and soul of the audience. All the doors of every person in that theater get blown down at once. And it feels great.
If you’ve got a good personal story to tell, by all means look at the memoir-true story form to show you how to shape it. But don’t be fooled. It’s very difficult to make your story dramatic and unique from everyone else’s experience. That’s where adding one or two other genres makes all the difference in the world.