Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Captain Philips

Written at the time of the film's release.

Shakin' the Cam/Rockin' the Boat
"Everything's Going to Be Okay"

Paul Greengrass, who has succeeded in bringing a visceral documentary feel to even his fiction films (The Bourne Supremacy/UltimatumThe Green Zone) is back in "Based on a True Story" territory with Captain Phillips, which is about the 2009 cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates, which, in the course of events, resulted in its titular captain being taken hostage for ransom.

Currently, some of the crew of the hijacked cargo ship are in the midst of a multi-million dollar lawsuit with the Maersk line over the events and "in the press" are disparaging the movie's events and the character of Phillips ("anonymously" for legal reasons—as most heroes would do it) now that the movie is released.  Their peril was stopped hours after it began.  At that point, their safety was assured and the drama stopped. Phillips was stuck in a lifeboat with the pirates for a few days more, and faced an untenable situation that only seemed to worsen as the hours went on.*
Anyway, a lot of bad-mouthing about Phillips being portrayed as a hero in this situation. He's not (although the resulting PR feeding-frenzy-makers like to bandy the word "hero" about at the slightest positive act). He's a victim, more passive than aggressive, trying to survive the situation as much as possible. That much is clear. Earlier this week, we'd did a review about truth and fiction and the compromises film-makers make to save time, money and confusion. We're not willing to go over the same territory twice in one week.

So, how's the movie?

It's quite good, in that edge-of-your-seat uneasiness way. The drama—and melodrama—comes from the "unknown" factors and the "wild card" desperation of the pirates themselves (they're portrayed as excitable, drug-addled** child-men with no other options), simmering at the boiling-point that only intensifies when the scene shifts from the vast cargo ship to the tiny lifeboat that Phillips and the hijackers occupy for the next few days, while the ship's crewmen, the shipping company, and the Navy get their respective acts together. Those expecting a quick-cutting flying fist-fest ala "Bourne" are going to slunk away with pouty-mouths—there ain't that much action here, and when the film gets really good, there's no room for any. No, most of the movie is a waiting game, everybody waiting for an opportunity to make a killing, one way or another. And if something doesn't go anybody's way, there's an escalation of a few seconds until things calm down, then there's a lag where we're waiting for something to go wrong again, and it that the film is an emotional roller-coaster ride for the audience (other than the evidence that Capt. Rich Phillips has his picture all over the place seeming very much alive).
Barkhad Abdi as the de facto leader of the pirates.
Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor, I'd like to see more of this guy.

So much of the film depends on the presence of Hanks in the starring role; we spend the most time with him and the actors portraying the Somali's, who have the same sense of menace throughout (although some pains are made to make sure that Barkhad Abdi's ring-leader, Muse, is set apart from the others—the others come down to "the driver," "the injured kid," and "the wild-eyed crazy one").  

It recalls a story about the marketing of Apollo 13, which originally had a poster of the perilous situation—the spacecraft leaking oxygen going around the dark side of the Moon—but fearing for their investment, the producers opted for one that had Tom Hanks front and center in a claustrophobic layout. The reason for this being that audiences might not care for the situation depicted in the earlier poster, but if there's a poster where Tom Hanks is worried that he's in trouble, that might bring a sympathetic audience in, hoping that the popular actor would attract a crowd. And so the actor-specific poster (despite an all-star cast) was substituted. One wonders if it might be the same reason that Executive Producer Kevin Spacey is not portraying Phillips; maybe folks wouldn't worry about Spacey so much, but Hanks' every-man persona might make a monetary difference at the box office. 

In any case, Hanks does a fairly good job at maintaining a veneer of calm while an undercurrent of panic roils through him. But where he really shines—to the point where it's amazing to see—is the way he projects the character's shock at the end of the film, and one has to applaud Hanks for displaying a total break-down without once making us recall his crying for a volleyball.*** Despite his reputation as a male version of America's sweetheart, he is a good enough actor to still surprise and move, over one's objections.

* My first question to those union sailors would be "If Phillips died, would you still be pursuing the lawsuit?" They're damned if they would, and damned if they wouldn't.

** In the film, they're constantly chewing khat.

*** That would be his loony-toons turn in Cast Away.  If I had a nickel...

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