Tag Archives: B+

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Among mainstream filmmakers Paul Greengrass is the reigning master of what might be called manufactured cinema veritate, bringing an almost palpable feeling of reality even to fictional material about Jason Bourne. It’s a talent he’s used with special brilliance in wrenchingly powerful recreations of actual events in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “United 93,” and he brings it to bear again in “Captain Phillips,” a dramatized account of the incident of April 8-12, 2009, in which an American-flagged cargo vessel, the Maersk Alabama, was seized by four pirates off the Somali coast and its captain held hostage in a small lifeboat until he was freed by U.S. Navy SEALS. It’s an extremely well-made film, but for a variety of reasons not as gripping and compelling as “United 93,” with which it’s now being compared.

Actually, that comparison isn’t really the proper one. “Captain Philiips” is more akin to Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the film about tracking down—and killing—Osama bin Laden. Both are grueling stories that end triumphantly with military success; the triumph in “United 93” is one of self-sacrifice, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Still, Greengrass uses the technique he’s honed over the years to give the tale—adapted by Billy Ray from the book Phillips wrote about his ordeal—considerable punch. The sequences depicting the pursuit of the ship by the Somalis—played by Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali (all native Somalis who emigrated to the U.S., and all without professional acting experience)—and the takeover of the vessel are beautifully crafted, with superb cinematography by Barry Ackroyd and editing by Christopher Rouse; and the following episode, in which most of the crew hide from the intruders, is harrowingly suspenseful. The later scenes of the captain and pirates sweltering and bickering in the lifeboat as naval forces bear down on them and plan Phillips’ rescue are also tense and viscerally exciting.

Why, then, does “Captain Phillips” fail to reach the level of Greengrass’ earlier films, or of “Zero Dark Thirty”? One reason is the scope of the story, which frankly suffers from its relatively small scale. The recent Danish film, “A Hijacking,” told a similar story, but broadened the narrative to include the families of the crew back home and negotiations between the pirates and the shipowner, matters that this script entirely skirts. To be sure, the earlier film had serious problems of pacing and tone—to dramatize the tedium of the event (which dragged on far longer than this one), it was very deliberate, and its eschewal of highly charged moments accentuated the dulling effect. But a comparison suggests that the decision to ignore anything away from the ships and the lifeboat, while it has the virtue of enhancing intensity and a claustrophobic feeling despite the expanses of the sea, has drawbacks as well.

The second problem is Hanks. It’s not that he doesn’t given an excellent performance; he does. In the brief early scenes with Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife, he radiates the right everyman quality (even if the accent is inconsistent), and later he takes on the brusquely businesslike role of a skipper effortlessly. The arrival of the pirates transforms him into a canny manipulator trying to outfox his captors, while in the final reels he makes a convincing hostage, alternately calculating and terrified. He caps it all off with a stunning scene in an infirmary where all his character’s emotion over his ordeal comes pouring out—sure-fire Oscar bait, if one might be a bit crass.

Yet it’s undeniable that Hanks is too familiar to fit comfortably into a picture of this type. Much of the force of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “United 93” came from the fact that the actors weren’t recognizable; it allowed the pictures to achieve a near-documentary feel even though they were obviously crafted with the utmost technical calculation. “Captain Phillips” is equally superb technically. But the very presence of Hanks, who’s as singular a personality as Jimmy Stewart ever was, shatters the illusion the filmmakers are so carefully creating. That’s made even more evident because the rest of the cast has the anonymous quality of the earlier pictures; Chris Mulkey is the most familiar member among the rest of the crew, and he’s hardly a household name.

Still, even with its problems, the film is an impressive accomplishment. The attempt to provide background on the pirates may be thin—understandable, but unfortunate—but the quartet of Somalis give convincing performances. That’s especially true of Abdi as their leader Muse, a thin, reedy figure whom Abdi invests with equal measures of shrewdness, vulnerability, nastiness and credulity. The U.S. military personnel are less distinctively characterized, but the actors put across their spit and polish effectively.

It’s possible to find fault with “Captain Phillips” because one has to assess it against the highest standards—Greengrass’ own. But if it’s not the director’s best work, in comparison to that of others it’s still a potent piece of fact-based drama.

RUSH

You don’t have to be a race fan to enjoy Ron Howard’s take on the rivalry between James Hunt and Andreas “Niki” Lauda in the 1976 Formula One championship season. In fact, it’s possible to consider the series of races a pretty silly business, given the inherent and unnecessary danger they pose, and yet still find “Rush” a winner, even if it sputters occasionally in its progress around the track.

Actually the script—another literate gloss on actual events by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”)—introduces the two men before the year of their down-to-the-wire competition. As shown here, Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a carefree though ambitious hedonist, happily taking risks on and off the track while depending on the financial reserves of his aristocratic backer (Christian McKay), as well as his own talent, to lift him out of the lower racing division into the big time. Hunt is the polar opposite of Lauda, an intense Austrian who defies his father to pursue his dream, putting his own financial future at stake in the process. As obsessively pragmatic as Hunt is wildly intuitive, he’s also socially inept in contrast to Hunt’s easy companionability, bluntly telling others the truth as he sees it and offending whomever he talks to in the process. Needless to say, they rub one another the wrong way from the start, and the animosity builds after Hunt nearly causes a crash with a reckless move against Lauda in a race.

It doesn’t take long before both men effectively buy their way into Formula One placement, and both find romance—Hunt with supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), whose career soon causes strain in their marriage (along, of course, with his off-track activities), and Lauda with aristocratic Marlena Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara), who gives up her independence to become a supportive wife. But their main interest continue to be on their cars, and in the series of grueling races that together determine the contestants’ place on the roster, Lauda goes significantly ahead, until a terrible accident intervenes.

The rest is history, of course, but since it’s a story not every viewer will know, it would be churlish to reveal too much of it here. Suffice it to say it involves an excruciating period of recuperation, shown here in quite graphic detail, an astonishing comeback, and the development of a grudging friendship in the aftermath of competition. And Howard doesn’t skimp on expanding the film with archival material that provides information on the two men’s later lives. Though the picture loses steam in the sections dealing with the men’s domestic lives—the segments about Miller’s flirtations with other men, including Richard Burton, especially come across as glossy soap opera—for the most part Morgan and Howard make the right choices.

Throughout Howard and his pit team—headed by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and an expert visual effects crew supervised by Jody Johnson—succeed in making the racing footage almost palpably exciting, abetted in no small measure by the razor-sharp editing of Dan Hanley and Mike Hill and Hans Zimmer’s insistent score. That’s an important part of the film’s success, but the action would be of little interest unless the piece were character-driven as well. Hemsworth has the easier job, since the extrovert Hunt seems a natural fit with his exuberant personality. Lauda is the greater challenge, particularly since Bruhl must play him with a set of prominent false teeth that give him—as with the man in real life—a rodent-like appearance that racing enthusiasts freely ridiculed. But even behind makeup that would have done Lon Chaney proud, he gives a stunning performance, capturing the passion that simmers beneath the apparently cool, calculating exterior and the indomitability that marked his character. The remainder of the cast—even Wilde and Lara—are definitely spectators in the stands, as it were, but they all do what’s demanded of them (which basically consists of watching Hemsworth and Bruhl strut their stuff) more than satisfactorily.

Howard’s film delivers the adrenaline rush the title promises, but thankfully it does more than that, providing an engrossing—and ultimately stirring—human story as well. There’s plenty of speed and action here, but “Fast and Furious 7” this certainly is not. And while that might limit its boxoffice take, in terms of quality it’s something for which serious filmgoers can breathe a sigh of relief.