Tag Archives: docudrama

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]

‘Argo’ (2012) deserves its Oscar.

3 Dec

Argo Movie PosterThe premise of Argo is simply too nuts not to be based on a true story. Set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979, Argo stars Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, a CIA operative, charged with the unenviable task of rescuing six US diplomats hiding out at the Canadian embassy in Tehran from Iranian militants. Inspired by a glance at the then-new Battle for the Planet of the Apes, he creates a front to sneak them out: they are Canadian filmmakers out shooting some desert scenes for a science fiction movie. Directed and co-produced also by Affleck (alongside George Clooney, of all people), Argo has been receiving widespread acclaim. Is it justified?

Yes. There can be no mincing of words: this film is awesome. The palpable tension combines with superb acting and storytelling to create a vividly detailed and absolutely unforgettable film. That such tension and anxiety can be generated in the viewer, even though they know the outcome, is impressive.The darkly goofy inside-Hollywood comedy contrasts with the grimy themes of terrorism and overly-zealous religious mania marvellously. What would seem like two genres completely at odds with each other are brought together seamlessly and the end result is immaculate. In theory it shouldn’t, nay, couldn’t work, but Affleck has struck gold here.

Being based on a historical event always leads to the same question – is it historically accurate? While it does take some liberties, for the most part this movie stays true to the actual events (a nice little nugget of context is given at the beginning, which preps the viewer on Middle-Eastern history), while simultaneously providing a near-obsessive attention to detail. The 70s décor and cultural references are spot on. The actors and scenes resemble the real deal to a tee, and the closing slideshow of photos which pre-empts the credits illustrates this. Affleck has clearly poured a lot of effort into this project, and it shows. This makes Skyfall look decidedly average by comparison.

The artistic licence that the film does take is subtle enough to add to the overall experience without undermining its authenticity. In fact, certain events which actually happened were deemed too silly to include – one of the men kept calling his friends by their real names instead of their aliases, for instance. The added drama, such as the cars chasing the plane as it takes off at the end, didn’t ring quite as true for me as the rest of the film did; once it begins to rely on traditional action movie tropes, it jars slightly with the established realism of the film. This is a very minor complaint and takes nothing away from the overall experience, however.

Of course, Argo is an undeniably political film, and as such it raises several questions. Does it portray the USA as the heroes, and the Iranians as villains, as is the typical West vs. East scenario? Not quite. The frustrated plight of the Iran people is clearly explained at the start, though their frankly barbaric and animalistic behaviour certainly puts them in a negative light. Argo endeavours to emphasise the importance of international cooperation in world politics, as well as the redundancy of war in general. Though this film packs such a dramatic punch that all of the above could be ignored and the movie would still be thoroughly enjoyable.

A satisfyingly tense, Oscar-worthy masterpiece that simply cannot be recommended enough. With Argo, Affleck confirms his status as director-producer-lead actor extraordinaire. The next Clint Eastwood?

Simon says: the best movie of 2012.

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