Friday, August 30, 2013

Captain Phillips

The most important thing that attracts me about the upcoming Oscar-bait thriller is the film's director Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two Bourne films, both of which are rivetting. The way he shoots action scenes and edits them is something else altogether...

Captain Phillips is an upcoming 2013 American action thriller film directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks. The film is a biopic of Captain Richard Phillips who was taken hostage by Somali Pirates during the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009. Set on an incontrovertible collision course off the coast of Somalia, both men will find themselves paying the human toll for economic forces outside of their control.

The film is directed by Greengrass, from a screenplay by Billy Ray based upon the book, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. The film is produced by Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, and Michael De Luca. It is scheduled to be released on October 11, 2013 and will have its premiere showing at the 2013 New York Film Festival.
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With his irrepressibly kinetic style, Greengrass could probably make the opening of a cereal box exciting, so it was almost a no-brainer that he could successfully handle a story like this, which features not only logistical challenges but the sort of volatile political backdrop he has favored in most of his work. Still, for a story that pits locals versus Americans in the Middle East and boasts a climax that involves Navy SEALs, U.S. choppers and warships, the taut screenplay by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, The Hunger Games) essentially makes no mention of religion, al-Qaida or the war on terror, concentrating on the more essential reality of impoverished young men, some of them fishermen, pushed to extreme measures by the big bucks bandit bosses offer for Western hostages, for whom they can demand millions. It's "just business," as so many criminals throughout history have said.

The usual Greengrass skill is evident with the diverse settings and mix of languages and accents, the combination of technologies high and low, the laying out of logistics and constant movement from place to place and the outer limits of human resilience and endurance in dealing with severe threats to them. The director has long since mastered relaying exposition as economically as possible and, visually, he and ace cinematographer Barry Ackroyd make the tiny open motorboats that pursue the hulking, graceless container ship look like minnows bird-dogging a whale.

The breakneck sequence during which the terrorist pursue and board the cargo ship effectively kicks "Captain Phillips" into high gear, and Hanks' performance follows suit. His calculated responses to the pirates demands, as his eyes dart back and forth, set aside questions associated with the questionable accent and foreground his speedy calculations. Matched by newcomer Abdi, who possesses a cunning instinct to match Phillips' trained calm, Hanks takes on the role of negotiator before the real negotiators arrive, carefully playing along with the kidnappers' agenda while coordinating with his men to fight back. The friction between the two men creates a terrifically thick power play that grows exponentially dramatic when the pirates force Phillips into a lifeboat and face down a cavalcade of U.S. authorities.

Greengrass finds an intriguing contrast between the entire showdown and the almost casual workplace frustrations of everyone involved. "They're not paying me enough to fight pirates," argues a union man onboard the ship. That sentiment is echoed by a pirate later on, when Phillips tries to reason with them to take the small amount of cash onboard (instead of demanding millions more) and flee. "I have bosses," he sighs. "They have rules."

By then, you don't have to know every aspect of the real life events to recognize that the kidnappers are doomed to fail. During the movie's final third, entirely set onboard the lifeboat with occasional cutaways to the Navy boat nearby, they face a formidable show of force. From constant tactical chatter to casting choices that include non-professionals playing fictionalized versions of themselves, Greengrass' emphasis on authenticity is undeniably effective, and all the more impressive in the context of a studio film. For that same reason, it's acutely subversive: Greengrass shifts the plot into an institutional critique less concerned with the possibility of Phillips' danger than the obvious lack of resources that doomed the pirates from the outset. "This game isn't for the weak," Muse tells the youngest of his group, implying the kamikaze nature of their mission.

Hard as it is to believe, Tom Hanks hasn't been nominated for an Academy Award since Cast Away in 2000. The two-time winner hasn't exactly sworn off awards bait entirely — Road to Perdition, Charlie Wilson's War, and The Terminal were all potential Oscar vehicles — but for whatever reason, the Academy hasn't bitten as of late. Can Captain Phillips turn the tide? At first while watching, we were inclined to say no: For most of the film's running time, Hanks delivers what may be the least showy performance of his career, since Phillips remains calm, even-keeled, and deferential even in the face of danger and potential death. It isn't until the very end of the film, when the character has back-to-back scenes of explosive emotional catharsis, that Hanks really gets to go all out; were you to pull a clip from his performance for the Oscar telecast, you'd almost certainly have to select something from the last ten minutes of the movie. Those last few scenes may be enough to push Oscar voters over the top, but the Best Actor category is so brutally tough this year that even a veteran like Hanks is no guarantee. Can he make the cut over other actors — like Robert Redford in All Is Lost, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club — who appear to have pushed themselves to the limit in draining, physical, transformative roles?

It takes real skill to build genuine suspense when telling a story the ending of which everyone already knows, but Ray and Greengrass keep us on our toes, mainly by portraying the pirates as dangerous opponents, even when they’re surrounded by aircraft carriers.

But while Phillips comes off as resourceful, brave and dedicated, his captors more often than not resemble zombies — Greengrass often shoots them in a way that makes their eyes invisible, rendering them soulless. The group’s leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) gets in a few lines about how his people are victimized by larger nations (who have overfished the waters) and the local warlords (who pocket whatever fortunes these pirates manage to pilfer), but he mostly comes off as a mere monster, constantly chewing khat leaves and glowering.

Greengrass is obviously no colonist — his “Bloody Sunday” was an impassioned tale of Northern Ireland bearing the brunt of British violence — but his portrayal here of a noble white officer suffering at the hands of insidious black pirates smacks of Rudyard Kipling.

Still, it’s a fine showcase for Hanks, who captures the captain’s quiet authority in calm seas, his fortitude under duress and his overwhelming shock when the ordeal ends. It’s too bad his most extended bit of dialogue is a horribly written exchange with the missus (played by Catherine Keener in a terrible wig), in which they speak in the broadest terms about the world today and things sure are rough and all. His performance picks up substantially once he leaves the suburbs and assumes command of the bridge.

We first meet the future kidnappers on the beaches of Somalia as the film jumps back and forth between them and the crew of the Maersk Alabama. By the time the attack finally happens, we know these people. We don't like what they are doing, but there's just enough familiarity with them (due, too, to the wonderful performances of Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali) that we just wish they'd stop all of this before someone gets hurt. (Unfortunately, if you know the true story, you know this is unavoidable.)


The pirates (who also get one too-brief context-establishing scene on the Somalia mainland) first arrive in two small skiffs ill-equipped to challenge the Alabama’s speed, though it’s a clever bit of radio theater concocted by Phillips that ultimately thwarts them. But the crew knows it’s only a matter of time before their unwanted visitors return — which they do, in a sharply executed setpiece that pits the undersized skiff (just one this time, with four occupants) against the Alabama’s pressurized water jets and evasive maneuvers. It’s a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in one of Greengrass’ “Bourne” pics, suggesting how much the director’s immersive, handheld aesthetic has been sharpened by his season in the Hollywood tentpole trade.

Where Greengrass’ earlier true-life tales were principally group studies, his latest is very much a tale of two captains — Phillips on the one hand, and the pirate leader Muse (Abdi) on the other. Though he himself is but a low-ranking functionary in a vast piracy hierarchy, Muse is head honcho on the Alabama, and Abdi (a Somali-born American emigre making his film debut) plays the role with the hungry intensity of an oppressed man taking his turn at being the oppressor. In a movie that affords little dimensionality to its characters, Abdi finds notes to play you scarcely realized were there, until this reedy young man with jutting brow looms as large as Othello.

Hanks is predictably sturdy as the embattled captain (save for a come-and-go Boston accent), playing the kind of Everyman facing extraordinary circumstances he’s played many times. He never quite disappears into the role, in part because there isn’t all that much there to disappear into, and in part because Hanks has a bag of actorly tics and indications that follow him almost everywhere he goes. But he seems confident handling the tools of the nautical trade, and his scenes opposite Abdi bristle with a quiet electricity. Much of the movie’s first half is devoted to Phillips’ stealth efforts to keep the pirates away from his crew (who huddle in hiding down in the engine room), feigning mechanical failure and offering to send the marauders on their way with $300,000 in cash from an onboard safe (except, they want millions). At every step, Hanks excels at showing what’s really going on in the character’s mind while maintaining his facade of almost folksy calm. It isn’t one of the actor’s rangiest roles, but it culminates in an eruption of emotional fireworks of exactly the sort Oscar dreams are made of.

Like in life, “Captain Phillips” makes a sharp turn at almost the exact midpoint, as the pirates flee the ship in an enclosed lifeboat with Phillips as their hostage. In turn, Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“United 93”) collapse the visual space of the film from the relative expansiveness of the Alabama to a crucible of claustrophobic tension.  As Phillips and the pirates head towards Somalia — and their fated rendezvous with a U.S. Naval destroyer — you can almost smell the sweat and grime hanging in the air of the poorly ventilated 28-foot capsule.

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