Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Captain Phillips

For some, I imagine 2013's CAPTAIN PHILLIPS will play like a military industrial training film. A step by step tutorial on how to effectively remove a threat without the bother of collateral damage. A satisfying flag waver that pays tribute to those in uniform.  The story it tells and its outcome should be well known to most viewers. In 2009, the container ship Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips and his crew were taken captive by a group of Somali pirates.  Despite being unarmed and ill-prepared for such peril, the crew turns the tables on the marauders, but eventually Phillips will be stuck with the pirates on a lifeboat, bound for Somalia.

The remainder of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS cuts between ratcheting tensions both on the lifeboat and in the Navy control room as orders are given to rescue the Captain, to not let him reach the Somali shore. You can read all about it. In fact, I'd recommend that.

I always wonder if movies like this are worth the time. Rather than reading news stories or a participant's recount, which are usually far more compelling. Making a docudrama or based on real events picture anymore seems to be a gratuitous exercise. It's not like the days when great movies like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN were produced.  Today's "based on..." films are rather all too common reminders that screenwriters are bereft of ideas. I guess it depends on what approach is taken. An attempt to capture, to the letter, what it was like? Or maybe a more human drama, an exploration of each party with even a bit of depth?

I would've preferred the latter approach with CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Not that Billy Ray's script doesn't try. Phillips (Tom Hanks) and the lead pirate, Abduwali (Barkhad Abdi) are front and center and are not mere pencil sketches or caricatures. Each is viewed with some measure of sympathy, and a little complexity (more is needed). Phillips is a family man who is prepared to die for his crew. Hanks very ably embodies the serious, yet compassionate professional (and apparently his portrayal is far more favorable than that of the real Captain Phillips). Abduwali and his cohorts are dirt poor and desperate, and the movie somewhat makes the case as to showing what little choice they had.  A deeper exploration of that idea might've allowed for a stronger drama.

But the movie's real agenda is to track a mission. To follow the military as they pinpoint and eventually execute a rescue. In that regard, it works very well. Despite what has thus far sounded like an unfavorable review, I was riveted throughout CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Cheering for the protagonist and holding my breath when it seemed things would go south. I wanted to see victory. But then I was always reminded of the pirates, the "bad guys".  The ones I wanted to see taken down.

Director Paul Greengrass again allows his camera to shake violently with the action it tracks.  It is a real distraction for some viewers, but this time I wasn't as annoyed by it as I was at times during the BOURNE movies. The director has realized true life dramas before (UNITED 93) with great, white knuckle urgency. Again he creates a very well crafted thriller that engages us, but I wonder how a film that considered the backstory rather than the particulars of the operation would've played.

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