Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Recent Watches: Captain Phillips (2013)

Once upon a time, making a movie about true life events only four years after the fact would have been perceived as tasteless. Now, in our internet-aided society, where news travels at light-speed, a four year break almost seems too long. The real life story that inspired “Captain Phillips” has already been swallowed up by the endless news cycle. Director Paul Greengrass has done this sort of thing before, though. “United 93” was made six years after September 11th, when wounds were still raw. This commitment to discussing the facts while they're still relatively fresh is, no doubt, due to Greengrass’ history as a journalist.

Befitting that commitment to realism, “Captain Phillips” tensely following events as they happened. The movie goes out of its way to establish Captain Richard Phillips as an ordinary guy, seeing his position as captain of a freighter ship as only a job. The normal routine of the job is disrupted by the appearance pirates. Phillips and his crew manage to avoid the initial abduction. However, on a second try, the pirates board the ship, holding its crew hostage. Phillips quickly tries to outsmart the pirates but only winds up getting himself abducted. Tension inside the cramped life boat builds as the military gets involved and the two captains attempt to outwit one another.

The most interesting thing about “Captain Phillips” is the direct parallels it draws between the two captains at the story’s center. We get a brief look at Phillips’ normal life, discussing with his wife about their son’s futures and the threats of his job. Similarly, we get a small peak at Abduwali Muse’s life, the dirt hut he sleeps in, the desert heat he toils in everyday. The film quickly evolves into a tense confrontation between the two. When Muse boards the ship, he attempts to take control of the situation. Phillips’ plans to undermine that control, ordering his men around behind their backs, are constantly put in peril but Muse’s unmoving decisions. When the American is abducted to the life boat, the conflict becomes even more blatant. Phillips tries to win the sympathy of the other pirates. Muse never lets his own crew out of hand. Phillips devises little plots, always hoping to stay one step ahead of his captors. A battle of wills, of sorts, splits up between the two.

The script is sympathetic to Muse to a degree. His own fear, at failing his warlord boss, is all too apparent on his face at times. Sweat drips from his face constantly. A moment frequently shown in the trailer sums up this angle soundly: Phillips asks Muse if fishing or kidnapping are the only options he has in life. Muse assures him that “Only in America” are such things possible. The movie never goes as far as indicting America’s own role in world politics. At the very least, it acknowledges Phillips’ kidnappers as human beings, forced into their life of crime by circumstance. His ultimate defeat has a sad undertone to it, another man crushed by the gears of his situation. Barkhad Abdi is well-suited to the role.

“Captain Phillips” never makes such statement becomes its goals are ultimately much more modest. Fact-based or not, this is a thriller, a genre film. Everything in the movie is engineered to generate as much tension as possible. Paul Greengrass is infamous for his shaky-cam direction, pushed far pass the point of coherence in the later “Bourne” films. The director actually reels it back a little in “Captain Phillips.” Just a little. The jittery direction is designed to ramp up tension, add to the verisimilitude of the film, and keep the audiences on their feet. Henry Jackman’s score functions similarly, a constantly ramping collection of electronic horns and bubbling sound. The editing is frenzied. Is this bag of tricks successful? Sure. So are screamers. Greengrass is good at engineering thrills but little of it feels natural. It’s almost as if the film is saying to the audience, “How intense is this? Can you feel the intensity yet?”

What tension the movie does create is owed mostly to its performances and its writing. I’m not a huge Tom Hanks fan by any means. The guy has given some good performances in the past but I’ve always found his charm a bit on the “trying too hard” side. On one level, the role of Phillips doesn’t allow much opportunity for Hanks to “act.” There’s no time to focus on the man’s inner turmoil or strife, the story too busy moving forward. Instead, Hanks’ skill is employed in order to show a man under constant pressure. Phillips proves likable enough, especially during an improvised escape attempt, but is more of an audience cipher. At least until the very end, anyway, when his composure can finally drop. Hanks’ skill as a performer comes through finally. The climatic moment of Phillips screaming blindly or finally overwhelmed by the trauma of his situation prove powerful and effecting. Considering so many Oscar flicks are focused on Big Acting all the time, I guess I should be impressed that this one held back in that regard.

The script is designed to keep the screws turning. When focused on Phillips and his situation, that works fairly well. Even though the audience knows the ending, a moment where Phillips has a gun to his head still generates a fair amount of tension. However, the script is a little too precisely constructed. The film frequently cuts away to the military’s reaction, marines skydiving out of a plane, the negotiator tersely speaking with his operatives. By shifting away from the life boat, the tension is deflated. The mounting score and spastic editing try to keep those thrills going but just wind up exhausting and boring the audience. Maybe we would have been a bit left out on the story had the focus been squarely on Phillips and his captors. But it would have been a stronger film.

“Captain Phillips’ more-or-less succeeds at what it sets out to do, just not as effectively as it had expected. It’s a decent, not great, thriller. It’s also another example of a film that wouldn’t had been nominated for Oscars if it hadn’t been based on a true story. (And if it hadn’t been based on a true story, it probably would have starred Liam Neeson.) That Hanks was ultimately not nominated for Best Actor shows that the Academy might agree with that assessment. [6.5/10]

No comments: