Tag Archives: biopic

Super Human Condition; ‘Hannah Arendt’ (2013).

13 Oct

Hannah Arendt posterAlthough philosophy is undoubtedly one of the fundamental cornerstones of academia (read: human existence), and has been since our ancestors first became self-aware, movies about philosophers rarely get made. As this writer is both a film critic and a philosophy student, he finds this phenomenon somewhat irksome. Thankfully, along struts Hannah Arendt, chain-smoking and dressed in a grey-brown dress, shattering all expectations by delivering perhaps the most engrossing, thought-provoking film about a thinker to date.

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta (Rosenstrasse, The Last Honour of Katharina Blum), Hannah Arendt stars Barbara Sukowa as the eponymous philosopher, who fled a fledgling Nazi Germany in the ’30s in order to pursue an academic career. She ended up in the USA, where she decided to cover the infamous 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, an ex-Nazi, for the legendary New Yorker magazine. Her resulting article expresses her shock at how ‘normal’ Eichmann appears, while also making controversial statements about the role of Jewish leaders in the Holocaust. The movie examines this, along with the resulting plethora of vitriol she receives.

Biopics about philosophers rarely emerge because while they may have made extraordinary claims, their literature is often so dense and ideas so complex that it’s difficult to strike gold on-screen. Thankfully, Hannah Arendt decides to focus almost entirely on the Eichmann trial and its consequential fallout. I say “thankfully”, because a film centred around her actual philosophy would be a tough sit. However, von Trotta does apply the gist of Arendt’s high-concept thoughts on totalitarianism and evil to what would otherwise be a fairly standard drama; this other-worldly, almost ethereal element gives the film a real artistic heft that’s rarely seen at the cinema these days.

Barbara Sukowa dominates the screen, proving herself to be an impressive, wonderfully convincing character actor. If this movie has an Achilles’ Heel, it lies in the supporting cast. While they are, for the most part, charming – Axel Milberg stands out as Arendt’s philosopher husband Heinrich Blücher, and Ulrich Noethen as Hans Jonas is likewise endearing as Arendt’s philosopher friend – both Arendt’s wisecracking novelist friend Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and the New Yorker’s staff occasionally feel stiff and clunky. Their attempts to inject some comedy into the mix are flawed, unnecessary, and ultimately undermine the serious ideas the film explores.

Minor complaints aside, Hannah Arendt remains a touching and surprisingly moving picture that blends themes of misunderstanding and communication breakdown with the emergence of a fascinating political philosophy. It’s a worthy telling of a little-known story about one of the few thinkers to truly grasp the banality of evil. A must-see for philosophy students, and a should-see for everybody else.

Simon says: the best philosopher movie yet.


A Pirate’s Life; ‘Captain Phillips’ (2013).

12 Oct

Captain Phillips posterMe nerves! Having just recently recovered equilibrium after the tension-fest that was The Call, I’m called upon to review Captain Phillips and thereby jettison my anxiety levels to another extreme, and not for the right reasons. Why do I do this job?

One could also ask why Captain Phillips (aka Tom Hanks) does his job in this decidedly unpleasant, if absorbing film, which unfortunately forgoes artistic finesse for a gung ho, pro-USA mantra.

The good Captain is a seasoned sailor of the seven seas with a knack for clairvoyance. Following a gratuitous ‘he loves his wife’ opening scene, Captain P sets sail aboard a colossal, Kenya-bound freighter. As the ship approaches the Horn of Africa, a gang of Somali pirates swiftly seizes control before speeding off aboard a sealed submarine-like lifeboat, with Hanks on board. A biopic of the real-life Captain Richard Phillips, this movie draws inspiration from his terrifying 2009 ordeal.

Good docu-dramas aim to underpin what the audience already knows with some revelatory or hitherto unearthed information, as expertly demonstrated by 2013’s Academy Award-rumbling Zero Dark Thirty. Although Captain Phillips concerns itself with atomically smaller stakes (ZD-30 shook us with conspiracies and a likely apocalypse; this has an assortment of skinny men), what really sinks this ship is its unflinching dedication to two-dimensionality.

At dubious loggerheads with the rationale that cargo ships are looted to combat impoverishment, or at least for some mix of socio-political reasons,Captain Phillips paints its pirates as mindless, greedy villains. While the boat’s crew and the Navy SEALS display robotic proficiency at their jobs, and the good Captain himself proves to be the sole benefactor of any characterisation whatsoever, the dead-eyed Somalis behave like hyperactive children on cocaine.

Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the commander of the invaders, is granted a few throwaway lines about the bullying nature of larger nations (who overfish in Somali waters) and his duty to local warlords (who pocket the bulk of the pirates’ plunder), but the rest of his screen-time is spent chewing khat leaves, barking orders and generally acting like a monster. The film submerges any humanising of Muse beneath swathes of inexplicable menace, making Hanks look positively saintly by turn.

Director Paul Greengrass is no blinkered defender of world superpowers – his Bloody Sunday is a thoroughly detailed yet impassioned examination of Britain’s negative legacy in Northern Ireland – but here his portrayal of the heroic white American hero’s immeasurable suffering at the hands of antagonistic African thugs comes off as crass. Sure, the movie sticks to the facts, but the choices Greengrass makes are just embarrassing.

On the surface, Captain Phillips succeeds in giving us two hours of stressfully claustrophobic tension, with the sort of melodramatic ‘old white guy in peril’ role that could guarantee Hanks another coveted Oscar. To deny the movie’s gripping nature would be doing it an injustice, but to label it as much more than star-spangled flag-waving would be an even graver affront to the complex truth that lies behind the growing problem of piracy on the African seas.

Simon says: bring some sea sickness tablets.

[Written for GCN]

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