Sunday, October 13, 2013

Captain Phillips

It is interesting that the most powerful country in the world, and one that adopted torture as an official policy against terrorism, assumes the role of martyr and victim in the popular media. In Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillip," (2013) Tom Hanks plays the title role as a suffering Christ of the sea -- the final fifteen minutes are like Mel Gibson's "Passion", Hanks is trussed-up, bloodied, bellowing in pain and fear and, then, after the Somali pirates have been gunned-down, we see him tended to by a briskly efficient female corpsman who itemizes each of his wounds for the audience as if we are inspecting the body of the crucified Jesus himself. The entire spectacle is a little puzzling since it is obvious from the outset that the ragged, hysterical Somali pirates are out-gunned, out-maneuvered, and doomed. In the end, the entire power of the American naval fleet is deployed against them and, of course, the outcome is never in doubt. Nonetheless, Greengrass shows Hanks mutilated, abused, humiliated, and weeping in shock at the climax of the picture, no doubt a realistic portrayal, but one that seems a bit self-pitying in the grand scheme of things -- our Henry Fonda, the heroic everyman Sergeant Ryan, sobbing and writhing to induce an orgy of self-pity in an audience of fat, wealthy, and powerful Americans. This objection aside Greengrass' film is intermittently thrilling and never less than interesting. The subject matter allows gripping scenes at sea, the pirate skiffs whirling about the monster Maersk freight ship, the great vessel heaped high with storage containers and the assault on the vessel by the Somalis is exciting as is the tense cat-and-mouse game, a kind of lethal hide-and-seek, that takes place once the bad guys get on the ship. The film is too long and shot in a style that I find intensely irritating -- it's all short snippets of jerky film, every third shot a close-up of one of the Somali's leering or shrieking or Tom Hanks grimacing in pain. But the narrative is lucidly conveyed, notwithstanding the obfuscatory style of the production and, although the picture drags on and on in its last act -- take the kill-shot for God's sake! -- things are generally exciting enough to keep the audience occupied and, indeed, distracted from asking any embarrassing questions, some of which may occur to you while walking to your car in the parking lot. This style of film making substitutes quantity for quality; there are way too many shots and most of them are unnecessary. We get repeated images of ships rotating or changing course at sea -- these sequences are shot with Soviet-style montage: we see the rudder under the ocean twistng, hands on the rudder on the command deck, sweaty faces, a helicopter shot of the vessel changing direction, more gratuitous underwater shots, more shots of the vessel's wake, more close-ups of concerned looking seamen -- probably 15 to 20 images in the montage simply to show that the big boat has moved 5 degrees one way or another. When the container vessel leaves the harbor at Oman, we get about two minutes of showy montage. But all of this is unnecessary -- there's no compelling need to fracture images of a minor change in a boat's direction into a dozen or more shots. Indeed, most of the images in the movie don't communicate anything except motion, but motion that is meaningless. The script is efficient if rudimentary -- there's a stab at establishing an equivalency between the pirates and the merchant marines in the first twenty minutes (Hanks says 50 young men vie for one captain's job and, then, we see a hundred Somali's competing to be chosen for the doomed mission) but this theme is quickly dropped. In fact, the portrayal of the Somali pirates is a little racist -- they seem to be khat-maddened morons, always screaming at one another, hyper-excitable, and their leader is so devilish that he seems to be sprouting a horn from his forehead. As with many Hollywood productions, some things are inexplicable: here is also an astounding set of images of Navy Seals hurling through the air as they drop as a paratroopers into the sea near the hijacked vessel. But the Seals, then, apparently inflate a couple of little rafts and row over to a big destroyer, later joined by an aircraft carrier -- so why in the hell did these idiots parachute down to the Navy boats? Was this for fun? Couldnt they have been simply helicoptered to the deck of one of the huge military vessels dogging the hapless pirates? The dangerous air-drop into the sea at night seems totally unnecessary. If this film is any measure of how the US military really responds to these kinds of crises, then the American taxpayer is in deep trouble.

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