What movie was that...?

15 October 2013

Captain Phillips

directed by Paul Greengrass

An old man walking out before me at the theater asked me how I liked Captain Phillips. I said I liked it very much and he smiled. “The good guys won,” he said, and my heart sunk a little. To view Captain Phillips through such a reductive lens as good guys versus bad guys, heroes versus villains, is to do the film a gross disservice that borders on insult. Perhaps in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the story of a freighter hijacked off the coast of Somalia and the harrowing struggle to retrieve the freighter’s abducted captain would have absolutely been reduced to nothing more than cliché versus cliché, an airport novel played out with a conventionally hollow climax aimed at satisfying our need for vengeance. Luckily for us, Paul Greengrass is no lesser filmmaker. His handicam skills are nearly unrivaled, and his ability to find and amplify tension is superbly evident in his best works (notably, The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93), so it stood to reason that, if nothing else, Captain Phillips would be gripping and unnerving in its realism. Rather than simply work within the tried and true confines of a survival tale or a kind of hijacking procedural, Greengrass finds ways to draw parallels between the freighter crew and the band of men attempting to seize the ship. It is in these parallels where we find the harsh truths and discover the reality of just how vastly different two people’s experiences in this world can be. This is a film that addresses such topics as global inequality and forces us to consider them in a multifaceted way. And once again I was thrilled to find no trace of the dreaded contrivance I call the “story swap” scene, where Phillips (Tom Hanks, at his finest in this film) and Muse (holy hell, was Barkhad Abdi phenomenal! Bravo!) trade life stories, thusly learning that even though they have tremendously different life experience, they are the same (I just gagged a little). According to the Maersk crew who lived this story, it all went down a lot differently, including a very contradictory portrayal of Phillips’ heroism (versus real life where, according to the crew, Phillips was self-righteous and lacked leadership during the actual hijacking). Due to the fact that I encounter resistance to this shockingly often, I must reiterate a concept I thought obvious: Movies are not real life, not even the movies depicting real life. The very framework of a movie demands that narratives, timelines, even people be condensed to suit the convention of traditional plot. Can movies strive to be equitable and forthcoming when depicting true events? Absolutely, but they will never serve as a substitute for real life. Is JFK an accurate depiction of the events that befell our nation in 1963? Is The Social Network a step by step revelation of Facebook’s inception? Zero Dark Thirty, anyone? In the hands of capable filmmakers, real life events such as these become springboards to begin commentary on the state of things, to target an idea for the audience to ponder, or simply to show us that things are never as cut and dry as we may think. The complicated, murky, devastating climax of Captain Phillips is a testament to the complexities of human life on this place we all earth and a direct rebuttal to our dangerous desire to distill everything into abstractions like good and evil. The same warning applies not just to film, but to politics, ideologies, and social systems (other humans, I’m looking at you).  

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