Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Captain Phillips

It's not often you go to a movie with a chip on your shoulder that has you determined to like it. But that's where I was with Captain Phillips.

Why? Basically, some comments on a mailing list got on my nerves. Captain Phillips played the New York Film Festival, this guy didn't like it, but rattled off a lot of fairly snobbish things that didn't seem to have much to do with whether the movie worked or didn't. Stuff about how featuring a mainstream Hollywood movie introduced by a big Hollywood star like Tom Hanks diminished the integrity of a festival, or how bringing out the real-life Richard Phillips destroyed the suspense, or how there was no attempt to make the Somali pirates sympathetic characters, and the whole thing was just an exercise in jingoism.

I disagree on most of that. While I've certainly mocked the Boston Film Festival for their apparent interest in celebrity appearances over actual movies, premieres and guests can be a lot of fun (and bring in good money to keep the fest running). I'm also going to guess that the filmmakers weren't exactly banking on the audience not knowing the ending, what with the thing being based on a true story and the posters crediting Phillips's book as a source. And, sure, there's probably a movie to be made about how economic pressures have pushed many Somalis toward criminal activity, this story isn't that one. There's also a discussion worth having about how movies like Captain Phillips sometimes seem like they're trying to give the audience the thrill of realistic military action by keeping the focus too close to question the situations that bring them in. But was that articulated? No.

And I still might not have really been annoyed, except that a reply came in saying that this was what the group represents, and... Jeez, I hope not. I've got no interest in being part of a group that spends time placing itself over the mainstream rather than just advocating for favorites.

Fortunately, I'm pretty sure that I'm legitimately fond of the movie. I don't think it's necessarily a great example of this sort you-are-there action film - it's tough to beat Black Hawk Down or Zero Dark Thirty - but I like it quite a bit.

Captain Phillips

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2013 at the Arlington Capitol #1 (first-run, 2K DCP)

I wonder if movies like Captain Phillips (and other features, including director Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday and United 93) are causing the definition of a "docudrama" to shift. Traditionally, the word has simply meant any fictionalized presentation based on a true story, but the likes of Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow in recent years have pushed it toward a more specific meaning: A focus on detail and procedure ahead of an overt character arc and a filmmaking style that suggests the fly on the wall more than the omniscient narrator. Captain Phillips is not the most extreme example of the style, but it is hands-on in a way it might not have been fifteen years ago.

The film starts in two very different corners of the world: In Vermont, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is reaching the end of his vacation and preparing to return to his work as a merchant marine captain, while in Eyl, Somalia, the head of the local pirate gang is demanding more production from his subordinates. The two collide a few hundred nautical miles off the Horn of Africa, as Phillips and his Maersk Alabama crew do their best to ward off an attack led by the cunning and determined Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

For all that the navies of the world are sophisticated, technologically advanced organizations, one of the more immediately striking things audience will learn - or be reminded of - when watching this movie is just how simple modern piracy tends to be. Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray sketch the important details out quickly - how the organization of the pirates is more akin to organized crime than the romanticized adventurers of the past, what makes the Alabama a tempting target, how greater speed and fire hoses are often enough to hold attackers like Muse's group off. Greengrass and company aren't giving a lesson on how to be a better pirate or avoid their attacks, but they excel at giving the audience information as they need it. It's great "how this works" material, smoothly presented.

Full review at EFC.

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