October 06, 2013

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS Is A Must See For Fans Of Tom Hanks, Naval Operations, Or Good Movies

"You're not just a fisherman."
Paul Greengrass is one of those directors that always piques my interest.  Most people know him as the man behind the later (better) Jason Bourne films, and there's no arguing that those movies are fantastic and had a huge influence on the action genre as a whole.  But Greengrass has so much more to offer than just Matt Damon crackin' skulls.  I still dream about his aborted take on Watchmen that would have featured John Cusack as Nite Owl and Ron Perlman as The Comedian.  But Bloody Sunday and The Green Zone have been on my list for a while, mostly because I suspect they're strong examples of what I find most compelling about Greengrass as a filmmaker.  He has an uncanny ability to make his projects feel more like captured documentaries than staged narratives.  United 93 is a sterling example of a film that feels not just authentic, but real; watching that film was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had in a movie theater.

That's another film that I saw while working as a security guard in Los Angeles, which meant that while the movie played my job was to stand in the aisles monitoring the crowd with a night vision scope in search of illicit recording devices.  The beauty of this job was that after about the first 30 minutes, it was a pretty safe bet that there was no piracy going on and I could pretty much just stand around and watch the movie.  The job gave me the opportunity to see a lot of films well before they were released, often times sneaking folks like Adam Sandler or the Wayans brothers into the theater just after the lights went down.  It was one of the best jobs I've ever had, even if I did have to slog through a whole lot of crap in the process.  I once had to watch the Bratz movie 5 times in two weeks.  It's a miracle I'm still breathing.

Anyway, United 93 was one of the first screenings I ever worked as a guard.  It was at a small theater on Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills and I can still envision the long raked aisle leading to the stage adorned with a dark curtain streaked with silver, as well as the heavy red drapes over the back entrance, blocking the light that came in from the lobby.  Once my professional duties were out of the way, I focused in on the actual film and it was intense to say the least.  The close quarters handheld camera work brings a tremendous sense of immediacy and the cast is filled with many unknown or non-actors, a tremendous gamble which Greengrass iss able to make work incredibly well.  By the time the airline passengers rushed the cockpit, I was so overwhelmed that I literally couldn't stand still.  Guards aren't allowed to sit during screenings, which probably would've calmed me down a bit, so instead I had to retreat to the back of the theater where I could pace back and forth without distracting the audience.  It was easily the best film of 2006, but even though I loved it and bought it on DVD the instant it hit shelves, I've never been able to bring myself to watch it again.

I didn't have quite the same visceral reaction to Captain Phillips, I suspect because September 11th was such a personal experience for me whereas my only real memory of the Maersk Alabama incident was hearing that it was the first successful pirate seizure of an American vessel since the early 19th century.  Then again, my lack of foreknowledge of how the specific events played out probably allowed me to get a little more caught up in the storytelling element.  All that notwithstanding, Captain Phillips is still an excellent film and a surefire contender come awards season.

I often find naval stories of particular interest because it's a world that feels largely alien to me.  My parents had a small motorboat when I was a kid that we used to putter around Cape Cod and cruises through the Caribbean are pretty much my family's vacation option of choice, so I've spent plenty of time on the water.  But that's a far cry from working the shipping lanes along the Horn of Africa.  It's a whole different culture that Greengrass captures very smartly and efficiently.  He uses a lot of long takes and his signature handheld aesthetic to make you feel like you're right in the thick of the action, less like a camera observing from the outside and more like a person who's standing there among the other characters.  It's particularly effective in the tight confines of the lifeboat in the film's second half, where you can practically feel the rocking of the boat and the spray of the ocean outside.  What's more, Greengrass smartly never cuts away from the action on the water to check in with Phillips' family or with politicians in Washington, which really contributes to the sense of claustrophobic isolation.  I always appreciate it when a film doesn't pander to the dumbest guy in the room by bending over backwards to spell everything out; thankfully Greengrass plays to reasonable intelligence in all of us.  As soon as the pirates overtake the ship, Phillips begins secretly communicating with his crew, dropping them hints and clues to help them both evade capture and undermine the pirates' efforts.  It's all done very simply and effectively, and in one case I didn't even realize Phillips' true message until his first mate relayed the information to the other crew members.

While the crew is peppered with some familiar character actors and Hanks is obviously a star, the film is largely populated by unknowns.  I haven't been able to confirm it anywhere, but I suspect that most of the military personnel we see working to rescue Captain Phillips are actual naval officers, just as most of the military and air traffic controllers in United 93 are the actual people recreating what they went through that day.  I'm thinking specifically of the nurse in the film's final scene, who speaks and works with the empathetic efficiency that only comes from years of honest experience as a medical professional.  But it's the four Somali pirates who really stand out.  All are first time actors who emigrated to Minnesota and got the job by answering an open casting call on TV.  And, just as Greengrass did with the terrorists and passengers in United 93, the pirates and the Alabama crew were kept apart during production, even staying in separate hotels so that they didn't meet until the first take when the pirates stormed the bridge of the ship.  All four pirates are absolutely fantastic, but it's Faysal Ahmed as the imposing enforcer Najee and Barhad Abdi as lead pirate Muse who truly impress.  Najee is like a mad dog, creating a constant air of instability that increases exponentially the longer they're confined to the small lifeboat.  Muse is just the opposite, intelligent and alert, but with a strong undercurrent of sadness; you never quite feel sorry for him but you get the sense that, were it not for the harsh realities of life in Somalia, he'd be a decent kind of guy.  Plenty of experienced actors would have trouble holding their own against an actor the likes of Hanks, but these rookies do it flawlessly.

And about Tom Hanks.  My god.  There are certainly many more performances that will be talked about before Oscar nominations are made, but at the moment this feels about as close to a sure thing as you can get.*  Not counting Toy Story 3 or Cloud Atlas, which are both such a different animals that they're not even worth comparing, this is easily the best character work Hanks has done in a decade.  Sure he's got a bit of a goofy New England accent that sounds like he's auditioning to for some future Ted Kennedy biopic, but his portrayal of Phillips is so smart that you don't even fully appreciate it until after you've left the theater.  Hanks pulls off an impressive magic trick, playing Phillips as this rigid, button down stickler for rules and security,** someone who's all business and treats his kidnapping with a sort of calculated, analytical precision so that he never gives himself an opportunity to really let the danger and the enormity of his situation sink in.  That only ratchets up the tension; even when he appears calm it's always clear that Phillips is coiled and ready to do whatever is necessary to survive.  It all leads up to a final scene in which Hanks finally lets loose, releasing all that pent up emotion in a moment that deservedly has Oscar clip written all over it.


One final word on releasing tension.  Something happened during my screening which I can't get out of my head, but there's simply no way to discuss it without spoilers for the film's last scenes.  When watching a situation as intense as the finale to Captain Phillips, I understand the desire for some kind of break in the emotional dam, whether it be through laughter or tears. But the more often go to the theater, the more I suspect that some large audiences are simply incapable of appreciating any kind of adult moment, be it violent, sexual or otherwise, in any kind of appropriate way.  Case in point: in the final scenes of this movie there are two moments that stood out.  The Navy SEALS affect a daring rescue of Captain Phillips, luring Muse off the lifeboat under the guise of negotiating a ransom and then assassinating the remaining three pirates on board while Phillips is bound and blindfolded.  The snipers hit their targets and the bodies all crumple to the floor in an explosion of blood, but the captive Phillips has no idea what's happening, so he immediately calls out, "What was that?"  My entire audience immediately cracked up.

I'll admit that Hanks' delivery sounds a bit weird, but it's such a serious and dramatic moment that I simply cannot believe that Greengrass intended the line to be funny.  What's more, about 30 seconds later we see the naval officers onboard the USS Bainbridge tackle Muse to the floor.  When Muse asks what's happening, a nervous officer replies, "Umm, you're under arrest and all your friends are dead."  (I'm paraphrasing a bit.)  That line is ABSOLUTELY meant to be funny and thus is clearly meant to be the moment that breaks the tension and allows the audience an emotional release.  But because the majority of my audience seemed to possess the emotional development of a middle schooler, the entire moment was ruined.  It might feel like a small complaint, but it's something that happens with greater and greater frequency as time goes on, and the number of scenes that have been undermined by other people in the theater is frustratingly high.  (Don't get me started on A History Of Violence, in which the audience snickered through both sex scenes.)  Most depressing, it actually detracts from my desire to see movies in the theater.


I'm curious to see how audiences respond when Captain Phillips hits theaters on Friday.  People have obviously turned out in droves for Gravity this weekend and I suspect that a lot of positive word of mouth will fuel it to the top of the box office for a second week.  And while the public certainly loves Tom Hanks and Sony has definitely gone all out in terms of marketing, Paul Greengrass and his workman's style are hardly an audience draw.  And I feel like the majority of the public is about as familiar with the hijacking of the Alabama as I was walking into the theater, so I can't help but wonder if there are people out there who are honestly excited for this movie.  I'm willing to bet that when award season comes around and Captain Phillips comes up, the majority response will be, "Oh yeah, I heard that was good but I never got around to seeing it."

And that will be a shame.

*It's worth noting that he still has Saving Mr. Banks, in which he plays Walt Disney, coming out this December.  So whatever movie/role it's for, a Hanks nomination feels like a mortal lock.

**For the record, 11 crew members of the Maersk Alabama have actually filed a lawsuit against the company alleging that Phillips acted recklessly by ignoring security warnings and sailing too close to the Somali coast.  Ships were advised to keep at least 500 miles off shore and the Alabama was overtaken at a distance of only 240 miles.  The film does show Phillips reading these warnings, but it doesn't attempt to lay any blame.  
Title: Captain Phillips
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Max Martini, Catherine Keener
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - AMC Boston Common

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