Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Saving Captain Phillips

I wasn't familiar with director Paul Greengrass' work until I read that Kathryn Bigelow had been impressed with his film United 93, which I hadn't seen. (He's also done, among others, a couple of the Bourne films, but it's not a genre that interests me.)  When I finally caught United 93 on DVD, I thought it was quite good, but I can't say that it knocked me out.

Last week I went to a sneak of Greengrass' Captain Phillips (starring Tom Hanks, screenplay by Billy Ray).  I hadn't been interested in the movie based on the trailer, which was playing ad nauseum.  But I was intrigued by the critics' one liners in the full-page newspaper ad.  So I settled in with my latte, expecting that I'd need it.

To my surprise, I found the film even more tension-inducing and affecting than Gravity, which I'd seen the night before.  Captain Phillips is shot in Greengrass' (pictured above) signature documentary style, which suits the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates.  It's sort of this year's Zero Dark Thirty, but without Kathryn Bigelow's style and artist's eye.  (He makes movies, but she makes cinema.)

Still, the tension and twists in Captain Phillips are non-stop, and Hanks's scene with a medic will no doubt garner him a deserved Academy Award nomination.   It's an intense, affecting, and terribly realistic portrait of a severely traumatized man.  The depiction had me tearing up, which doesn't happen often for me at the movies.  Minor spoilers ahead!

My one beef with the doc style is the opening of the film, as Hanks and his wife (played by Catherine Keener--whose role is essentially a cameo) are driving him to the airport.  It's filled with dour import--they're expressing concern about the economic future that lies ahead for their son after college--who I think was cut out of the movie, because John Magaro (Not Fade Away) has the film credit on his IMDB page as "Dan Phillips," but is uncredited and unseen (unless I blinked) in the film.  The way the traveling scene is shot seems odd:  all basically from the back seat of their car, with close ups showing only the sides of the husband's and wife's faces.  One can postulate that Greengrass truly wanted to give the sense of a documentary, but since we know it's not one, the camera work in that scene actually calls attention to itself and distracts, which seems to defeat the whole cinéma verité purpose, anyway. 

Why doesn't the director want to show their full faces for most of that scene?  Is it to suggest that each is already half in another world?  Is their talk of the son a way of their avoiding addressing the impending separation between them?  Or is it simply heavy-handed foreshadowing of the contrast to the young Somalians' economics?  Or all of these things?  In any case, it struck me as awkward.  The rest of the camera work and the editing, however, are breathtaking.

There's an interesting dialectic between Hanks's Phillips and the Somali character Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who calls Phillips "Irish" and declares himself the new captain. The relationship that develops between them unfolds with subtle realism.  (Unbelievably, the Somali actors were discovered in Minneapolis!)

The Navy SEALS are pretty intense--especially the unflappable Commander played by a sexy Max Martini (who was in Pacific Rim earlier this year--and also in Saving Private Ryan).  In some ways the naval operation of Greengrass' movie reminded me of a an unlikely one I loved as a kid--Sink the Bismarck.  Why a little girl would be into that movie...well, you'd have to ask my therapist about that, I guess.  Check out the trailer; it's hilarious.  (Like Captain Phillips, it's "a shattering emotional film of men and ships.")

Captain Phillips is not a film I need to see again, and my initial astonishment with it has worn off some, but I'd say it's definitely one of the best of the mainstream Hollywood films that's come out so far this year. And it's worth seeing on the big screen.

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