Monday, October 28, 2013

The Cinema File #264: "Captain Phillips" Review

Between the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Pirates: Band Of Misfits, and the Movie and Music Industries' shared quixotic war against media piracy, I honestly can't remember the last time the concept of a pirate seemed like anything other than good clean fun, let alone a genuine threat. Oh wait, actually, now that I think about it, I do remember. It was back in 2009, when a small group of Somali pirates managed to seize a cargo ship and take its captain hostage for several days leading to a tense stand off with the U.S. Navy. Well, it took four years for this true life story of terror and survival to become a movie, and apparently in that time it has transformed from the story of a harrowing Navy rescue operation to the tale of one man's unbelievable struggle for freedom. Of course, I say unbelievable not to denote how amazing it is, but to imply that frankly, I don't believe any of this crap.

Captain Phillips is the story of, well, Captain Phillips, as told by Captain Phillips, or at least based on his own book chronicling the incident that made him famous enough to justify his being played by Tom Hanks. Phillips is, at least I'm told by the film, a simple, decent man thrust into circumstances he couldn't possibly have predicted or controlled, who through sheer force of will and bravery manages to outwit a crew of savage hijackers practically single handed. Far be it from me to question the account of a real, still living person who went through what is undeniably a very tense and traumatic situation, but well, screw it, I'm going to do it anyway. There's just so much surrounding this "true story" that I couldn't push out of my brain while watching it, and no matter how well put together it was from the standpoint of an action suspense thriller, the pseudo-reality was too overwhelming.

There is of course no mention of the fact that much of Captain Phillips' crew is currently suing him for recklessly endangering all of their lives through his incompetence, and some believe his active death wish. No mention of the repeated warnings he ignored citing increased pirate activity in the area, or the company policy he deliberately broke by travelling deeper into Somali territory than was authorized. And even if the film's portrayal of its titular character were not so Garth Marenghi-esque in its self aggrandizement, the depiction of the pirates is just downright silly. For one thing, they have conversations Phillips could not possibly have understood that establish them as characters with traits they almost certainly did not have. That is, unless the four man pirate crew just so happened to fall into the stereotypical roles of all hostage movie bad guys, with an outwardly reasonable leader, a crazily violent lieutenant vying for dominance, and a sympathetic neophyte.

All of this is only made more disappointing when you realize that structurally and tonally, its actually a pretty well made movie. Paul Greengrass' penchant for uncompromising and gritty action as seen in films like the Bourne series, Green Zone, and perhaps most notably his last hijacking movie United 93 is clearly evident, and had I not known everything I know about the film's less than heroic back story, I'd have almost nothing bad to say about it. It is especially hard to create an adequate level of suspense whenever you're dealing with a true to life story recent enough that most of the details are so well known, and especially in a case like this where we know no one died that didn't deserve it, but Captain Phillips still manages to produce a sometimes nerve wracking and suspenseful experience. If only it weren't so hampered by the muddied truth behind it all.

Another problem with shifting the focus so much onto the Captain Phillips character is that it takes far too much away from the thing that I think made this story so captivating in the first place. For many, myself included, the story of the Somali hijacking isn't remembered as the story of one man's unexpected heroism, but rather as the first time we heard the term "Seal Team Six" and found out just how awesomely bad ass these people were, a few years prior to the Bin Laden raid depicted most recently in the film Zero Dark Thirty. The Navy rescue doesn't even come into play until the third act, and even then they are only in the background, when the entire second half of the movie, much like the Katheryn Bigelow film, should have been from their perspective. If I wanted to see a story of an everyday hero, I'd go see a Sully movie (or Flight, the next best thing, but with cocaine and John Goodman). For this story, I want to see bad ass Navy seals doing the impossible and making it look easy, and I barely got enough of that to whet my appetite.

Still, if you can get past the obviously over the top glowing portrayal of its main character and the replacement of the story's real life complexity with so much artificial depth, Captain Phillips is still a mostly enjoyable film by typical suspense thriller standards. Its very easy to place yourself in the position of those involved, to ask yourself what you would do in their shoes, and wonder how long you would survive in a situation that dire and unpredictable. As I noted much more emphatically in my review of the film Gravity, that's not really enough for me, but then I'm usually in the minority when it comes to these things. Personally I find the real story of the flawed and possibly crazy Captain Phillips to be much more interesting. I almost wish we had a rule stating that no story based on true events can be made into a movie until a majority of the principle people involved are dead. I know that would eliminate most of them, and pretty much every Lifetime movie of the week, but I think in the end, we'd all be better off.

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