I’ve always felt kind of weird about movies that aim to tell stories based on current events. Normally, I don’t think enough time has gone by to really get a fair view on whatever situation is being adapted. Take Zero Dark Thirty, for instance. That’s a movie that felt especially odd. The movie came out less than two years after the actual killing of Osama Bin Laden, and, obviously, had been in production for sometime before that. Given the fact that most of that raid, and the events leading up to it, are classified; how can it really be based in reality? Now, I know that there was some controversy surrounding the filmmakers access to classified information- and people did get in trouble for this access- but it doesn’t make it any less troubling. The film purports to be “based on actual events,” and while this is probably partially true, I find it to be extremely misleading, and engages in the gross practice of “historical revisionism.” What I find problematic about Zero Dark Thirty, and it’s version of “reality,” is that the average person will watch that film, and take it as fact. This is not an assumption on my part either. Most of the conversations I’ve had, and articles I’ve read about it, all talk about this film as if it was, in fact, a historical document. It’s a dangerous road, and irresponsible of the filmmakers to present their film in the way they do.
The only conclusion I can come to about why movies like this are made is that it works in the same way that TV movies do. It’s in the cultural zeitgeist, and it pretty much guarantees an audience. In our ADD style society, you have to strike while the irons hot if you want to make a buck off of these stories. Although, the killing of Bin Laden probably has a little more cultural mileage than a lot of things. I’m sure the Katherine Bigelow and company were interested in the story in a genuine sense- She was developing the movie before the raid actually went down, which is also kind of odd- but I can’t help but be a little suspicious. Especially considering that she got her information from borderline corrupt officials. I wouldn’t put it past them to skew this tale in a way that would bolster public opinion for legislation that they were involved in, but that’s just me. It’s okay, I know I’m crazy, but it doesn’t change the fact that this film could be potentially harmful to public perception.
Director, Paul Greengrass, is no stranger to the “current events” film. His first big hit was the film, United 93, which told the story of the passengers and their fight to take control of the titular plane during the events of September 11th, 2001. In my opinion, if you’re going to tell one of these stories, this movie does it pretty well. It’s all about the moment to moment events of the situation, and isn’t trying to make a larger point about the events. While the movie is largely fictional, because nobody knows with any real certainty about what actually happened, it works as a film made to honor the courageous people that sacrificed themselves. That’s the difference between this film and Zero Dark Thirty, it’s not a form of political commentary. If the film is all bull shit, that’s fine, because walking out of the movie isn’t going to make people feel that breaking international law and torture are par for the course. So, going into his newest flick, Captain Phillips, I was optimistic.
You know what this movie reminds me of? That show, Locked Up Abroad, minus the talking heads, obviously. I don’t mean that in the negative, either. Stories of survival through impossible odds are always interesting, and even a little thrilling, because someone actual lived through the events that are being described. Just like that program, Captain Phillips posits a story that we already know the ending to. What keeps our attention is what happens in between what we know. It’s all about the journey, and is a reminder that a good story told well is still that even if you already know the endgame.
Like I said before, this film is all about the journey, and it seems to really understand that. The way it keeps our interest, other than some really strong performances, is steeping the audience in the minutia of the moment to moment experience. It tells it’s story in almost real-time fashion for a lot of the running time, and focuses on some pretty “mundane” stuff. Like, showing us how much effort is actually required for a cargo ship of that size to turn and speed up, which becomes of monumental importance once the action starts. By cluing the audience in on these process’ we understand why we should feel tense when the Somali pirates are trying to board, and also indicates to us how a couple of small fishing boats could in fact board a vessel of this size. It’s kind of funny, now that I’m thinking about it. The film has to make these kind of events feel real and plausible, but they actually happened, so, yeah, I find that kind of funny. It’s something to keep in mind when you watch movies based on incredible true stories. However crazy and incredible a true story is, you still have to make a movie, and almost have to prove how it could happen, for fear that an audience won’t believe something that actually happened. It’s an odd dichotomy, but just because it’s odd, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
One of the larger success’ of the film is how it creates empathetic characters without ever slowing down it’s pace. It’s a pretty fast placed flick, and even at slightly over 2 hours, but the characterizations don’t ever suffer for it. In just a few well designed scenes, and strong performances, we have a complete sense of who all these people are, and, most importantly, why they are the way they are. Something that I really appreciated was the attention payed to the Somali pirates, and the context that their actions are given. It would have been really easy to make them caricatures, or “mustache twirling” villains that just do bad things because they are bad people. Thankfully, the filmmakers have made them representative of actual human beings, who have their own struggles and reasons for engaging in piracy. The scenes in which the pirates are given contextual motivations are short, but incredibly effective and important; they pay respects to the social and economic struggles that these people actually face, and often times feel like risking their lives in the dangerous business of being a pirate is their only choice. It’s a breath of fresh air, considering how the media and movies are often content with demonizing any society/culture/people that don’t see eye to eye with the self appointed “intelligentsia” of the world. I don’t believe in monsters, and I believe that everyone has a history and context for why they are the way they are, and it’s never clear cut, or “black and white.”
Greengrass falls under a lot of criticism for the way he shoots his films, and is usually pointed to as the the progenitor of “shaky cam,” or “cinema verite” if you’re into being pretentious. I’ll admit that this style works as much as it fails most of the time. Especially, when it comes to movies that are heavy on the action scenes front- namely his work on the Bourne series and Green Zone– but since Captain Phillips is more of a drama than an action movie, it tends to work really well. Giving it that “documentary feeling,” that feels appropriate, and heightens the experience over all. It’s kind of a character driven thriller, rather than an action driven thriller, so the obfuscation of some of the scenes actually enhances the tension, instead of confusing action geography.
What really makes this a great movie, instead of just a good movie, is definitely the performances. All around they are incredibly present, and you quickly forget about them as actors. Especially, Tom Hanks. I’ve always been a fan of his, but it was never really predicated on his ability to “lose himself” in a role. He’s the kind of actor that basically plays himself, to varying degrees, obviously, but I’m always aware that I’m watching “Tom Hanks” the actor, rather than really investing in the characters he plays(I feel the same about George Clooney as well, for further reference.). That’s not to say he’s not a good actor, or anything, but my enjoyment comes from just watching “Tom Hanks” as a celebrity. In Captain Phillips, Hanks proves his ability as a performer in ways that I never expected from him, and may be the best performance he’s ever given. I really did almost completely forget about his “persona,” and just got caught up in his characterization. Really impressive. The other performance of note, is the main Somali pirate, who leads the siege of the cargo ship, and ultimately kidnaps the Captain. Wow, that guy is pretty amazing, and the fact that he is, more or less, the real deal, really brought a level of realism to the scenes that is truly frightening. Also, considering that this is the first acting this guy has ever done, like ever, it’s even more powerful. He brings a real humanity to the role that has been informed by his actual life, and if they had gone with an actual “actor” I really think the film would have suffered, because this guy is just as much a point of focus as Tom Hanks’ character, and the movie hinges on the believe-ability of their dynamic.
Just as an aside, there seems to be some contention about the films veracity, as a lot of the actual crew has come out against the film. From their perspective, Captain Phillips was a righteous asshole, with a death wish, of sorts, and ignored the warning signs. Who knows, it could be true. They could also be jealous that the version of the story that’s told is based on Phillips book about the situation and he got all the money, attention, and accolades. I’m sure the truth is in the middle somewhere, and that the film probably does engage in a some historical revisionism. I know this is slightly hypocritical of me, but in this instance I’m fine with it. It’s not serving some weird political agenda, and it’s not trying to garner public support for anyone in particular’s point of view, because, at the end of the day, it’s not a story that “matters” all that much, in the larger scheme of things. If anything, the way that the Somalis are represented, might actually make people think a little bit about how life is for people in different parts of the world, and the struggles they face.
Going into Captain Phillips, I expected to casually enjoy it, but after watching it, it’s definitely jumped towards the top of my list for best movie of the year. It’s a thrilling, well made movie, with terrific performances, and a surprising amount of humanity in it. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. So, if you were on the fence about it, I’d say definitely give it a go.