Friday, October 11, 2013

Don't Mess with the Navy Seals: Captain Phillips


United 93 on a ship but with shakier camerawork.


While not as gripping as United 93, director Paul Greengrass has created another depiction of a real-life crisis that has the tone and immediacy of documentary-style realism. Greengrass establishes the tension from the beginning and maintains it for nearly the whole length of the film - with a lapse in its pacing when the story floats a little aimlessly in the scenes in the bobbing lifeboat containing Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and the pirates. All in all, this is a very good story of one man's endurance in the face of modern-day piracy on the high seas.

The film's big drawback is the shaky camera style which seems ridiculously shaky at times. When the film introduces the pirates on a beach in Somalia, the camera shifts and shakes so much it's all a blur. Later, during the hijacking sequence, the camera dances around so much you have a hard time distinguishing between the four Somali pirates. Sometimes, too, the shaky camera style diminishes the tension because it's hard to register characters' expressions.


Tom Hanks is quite good as Captain Phillips, the ordinary merchant marine captain who is thrust into an extraordinary situation. Also good is Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the four-man Somali pirate crew that uses a small motor-powered boat to raid a huge cargo ship.



When there seems to be no hope for Captain Richard Phillips because he is being held hostage by armed pirates in an enclosed lifeboat heading for the Somali coast, the Navy Seals appear on the scene and we know from films like Zero Dark Thirty that the pirates don't have a chance.

The film balances nicely between showing the pirates as ruthless cutthroats while at the same time showing them as victims of a country that has been torn by famine and civil war and is at the mercy of warlords. There is no hope in Muse's life, and we get the sense that he is forced against his will to hijack freighters, but the film doesn't go far enough to show what his other motivations might include.

Then, as I said, the Navy Seals step in, and I found my focus straying from the sympathetic Muse, straying too from the kidnapped Captain Phillips, as I became fascinated by how Navy Seals sharpshooters set their sights on the heads of three pirates and prepare to fire each A SINGLE SHOT THROUGH THE WINDOWS OF AN ENCLOSED LIFEBOAT ROCKING BACK AND FORTH IN THE SEA! AND THEY DO IT! For me, this is the film's most memorable moment. Greengrass doesn't seem to glorify the Navy Seals, but their feat of arms certainly overshadows many of the tense moments involving the titular Captain Phillips.


This is a good movie, but the shakiness of the camerawork keeps me from running out to see it again.


Steve's Blog said...

Good assessment of Captain Phillips. As you know, I think I liked this film a bit more than you seemed to. Greengrass' verite, shaki-cam is a trademark, even if it wears thin after a while. I found this to be the case in the Bourne films and United 93, which pales next to his achievement here. The reason is the fleshed-out story of the events and the well-rounded characters at odds with each other and globalization. I did not find the effect dizzying and found the sequences to be coherent and tense.

I agree that some more personal back story of Muse would have been welcome. There is an apparent hurry to get things moving along, and perhaps some more time in Somalia would have built the human drama. Nevertheless, all were three-dimensional and held my attention.

Jason Bellamy said...

So, here's what's interesting: Both as I was watching this and immediately afterward, I was thinking that while the story didn't have the grand emotional significance of UNITED 93 (how could it?) ... at least it didn't have as much shaky-cam.

It's handheld, sure. But, and maybe I'm just becoming desensitized, it really felt distinctly less disorienting and less random. (By "random" I mean that there's shakycam in cinema that seems either purposeful or somewhat unavoidable to the given shot and then there's shakycam in which the subject and the camera could just as easily be stationary, thus the shakiness feels random.)

Whether there's more shakycam in this would require some sort scientific review. So I'm not concerned with which of us is right -- I just find it interesting we had such different reactions.

Anyway ...

I agree that the movie loses a little dramatic tension in the lifeboat; 15 minutes less would make the movie that much stronger.

I also agree that the focus moves to the surgical precision of the Navy's military team, from the negotiators to the sharpshooters; but I wouldn't classify that as a misstep. Just like Greengrass respects the professionalism of the air traffic control workers in UNITED 93, I think we wants for us to respect the professionalism of these guys. Sure, there's a fairly simple human story, with two clear main characters, at the center of this movie. But at the core this, like UNITED 93, is a procedural, and the relatively anonymous players are still considered essential.

Good solid moviemaking. Liked it.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comments, Steve and Jason.

Both of you responded to my irritation with the shakycamera, so I will address that first.

It so happens that a couple of minutes ago I just finished watching UNITED 93 again. To me, U93 feels shot by a fixed camera compared to CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Yes, there are a lot of fast cuts in U93 during the final desperate rush, but you certainly know what's going on.

Particularly in the Somali beach scene, that camera is doing all sorts of things that don't make sense. It's all over the place in a scene in which I'd like to identify individuals.

Jason - I agree that things slow down in the lifeboat. I wish that could have been tighter.

I enjoyed a lot about this film - the most suspenseful part is when the pirates try to hook the ladder on the ship - but I feel the shakycamera effect gets in the way in the beginning.

As for the Navy Seals, I believe Greengrass presents them rather objectively - but I'm just saying that for me the most fascinating aspect of the whole story is that the Seals made those three shots.

Interesting: All is Lost coming out next weekend makes the third release in row centered on a single person survival story. I've closed my eyes during the previews, but it doesn't sound like the Navy Seals come to the rescue.

Jason Bellamy said...

I wouldn't disagree that the shots on the beach in the beginning are needlessly shaky. But I never felt I was missing anything essential there.

In regard to UNITED 93: It's been a while, but in my memory there are some shots in an air traffic control tower or room where the camera is bobbing and weaving over the shoulder of some folks without any purpose. So that probably compares to the beach sequences.

Hokahey said...

Jason - I guess with the shakycam thing, it irritates us at certain moments, and other times we go with it.