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'Captain Phillips' Review: Adrift

By Daniel Carlson | Film | October 11, 2013 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | October 11, 2013 |

Modern blogging relies on a number of stylistic tricks.

And they look like this.

Short sentences, short paragraphs, short thoughts.

It’s not uncommon for paragraphs to only have one sentence.

Some things are bolded for emphasis.

While other things are italicized.

Bloggers also play with visuals in other ways.

Sometimes they make text extra big.

And other times it’s extra small.

They also play with spacing.

Sometimes they write longer paragraphs, which are the same length as regular paragraphs, but to make absolutely sure that you’re paying attention, they bold key phrases where needed. This is a little like reading comic books, which don’t trust readers to understand emphasis so they help you along by ignoring tone and content. Everything becomes about presentation.

This is bad for a number of reasons.

One is that it’s hard to read something written like this.

It’s hard to get into the flow when everything has the same rhythm.

It’s practically impossible.

Another is that it’s hard to look past the execution to whatever the writer might be saying.

Because it’s not just what you say:

It’s how you say it.

The medium is always part of the message.

Presentation is part and parcel of the text itself.

You can probably already tell that reading something like this for too long would be nauseating.

The effect is like being shaken repeatedly, or held upside-down.

And these writers are not doing this to disorient you.

They think it’s helpful, engaging, creative. New.

But it’s anything but helpful. It’s a style and execution born of fear and confusion, and of not knowing what you want to say so you might as well try to fool people into believing you do. Style taken to its extreme becomes a trap. It becomes almost impossible to imagine another way of communicating, which dooms the author, and the repetitive stress of bouncing from blurb to blurb starts to wear on the reader, which dooms the audience. These problems are not new, but they feel more pervasive than ever because it’s never been easier for people to write for a mass audience or read things by authors they otherwise would never have known. Can you feel the difference reading this paragraph? The sentences are longer, but the thoughts are also more complete. The lengths vary, too. You’re not being coddled, but you’re also not being tossed around. You’ve got a place to stand and see and think, and you’re able to engage with the words. The goal isn’t to obfuscate, but to communicate. Past a certain point, creating something emotionally aloof and stylistically self-obsessed becomes nothing more than a parlor trick, and tricks like that are always representative of bigger problems behind the scenes.

Modern blogging is the best framework available (both stylistically and thematically) for understanding the alienating, clumsy, and increasingly ugly style of filmmaking that Paul Greengrass has come to rely upon. His films are composed of oblique angles and badly framed close-ups that constantly move and shake, unable to hold still for even a second or two, and they’re filled with constant, jagged cuts that seem to find pride and meaning in obscurity. The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum were disorienting, impressionistic action movies that relied too much on these gimmicks instead of allowing for the thrill of space and movement, but they’re hardly the only instances. Greengrass’s United 93 was similarly one-note, banging away with shudders and wobbles that mask more information than they reveal. Green Zone, a kind of thematic cross between all three (super-soldier Matt Damon wages the war on terror), was just as rocky. And now we have Captain Phillips, another film that seems to go out of its way to be as blurry and off-putting as possible. When people talk about a movie being hard to watch, they usually mean for narrative reasons — violence, disturbing images, etc. — but Captain Phillips is actually, literally, hard to watch. It is difficult to focus on and enjoy, relying as it does on a brand of filmmaking rooted in the idea that movies should be acknowledged on a sensory level but not actually seen or understood. Sensory experiences can be beautifully done, too: see Gravity for an example of how to marry animation, cinematography, and emotion to create an immersive and powerful big-screen event. But Greengrass’s desire isn’t immersion, it’s evasion. By never allowing the image to settle (in fact, by seemingly never bothering to frame anything beyond “Point the camera in that general direction”), Greengrass stays disconnected from the viewer and keeps them separate from the story. The three entities that should be united — audience, storyteller, and story — remain isolated from each other, communicating only through flashes of light and shrieks of random sound.

It would be tempting to say that some of the erratic visuals are meant to represent the emotional instability of some of the characters or the way their fortunes seem to change so drastically from one moment to the next. Captain Phillips is based on real events from April 2009, in which a band of Somali pirates raided the Maersk Alabama and wound up taking the captain hostage before facing off against the U.S. Navy and SEAL Team Six. (The events of the film are a matter of record, so I will probably spoil most of them here. If that bothers you, that’s fine, but really: How do you think four malnourished pirates would fare against the American military?) And this explanation is true, to a degree. Yet it also lets Greengrass go a little too easily. It’s one thing to show a character confused by action around them, like gunfire or a fight; it’s another to place the viewer in the character’s place and mimic their disorientation; and it’s still another to relentlessly push the viewer to keep up, to never let them know exactly what they’re looking at, and to equate visual chatter with emotional excitement. There’s no crescendo or release, no excitement and attendant tension, merely the constant onslaught of shaky, maddening images.

I’m hard-pressed to think of another filmmaker so devoted to a single tic that was also deliberately interfering with the quality of the viewing experience. All directors develop a certain style — Scorsese’s music montage pomposity, Wes Anderson’s diorama formality, Spielberg’s fuzzy lighting, etc., etc. — but Greengrass has drifted toward what almost feels like anti-style. Its defining trait is its muddiness. After introducing the titular Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), Greengrass shifts to the Somali village that will soon launch bands of pirates into the ocean. Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a rail-thin middle-manager in his gang, forms a crew and gets to work. This scene, and all others set in Somalia or involving groups of Somali men talking, is something of a wreck on screen. Greengrass almost never focuses on the speaker in a given moment, and when groups of men are shouting subtitled dialogue at each other, it’s not possible to track who’s talking. The script from Billy Ray also has these men talking, if not like children, then certainly like badly translated robots. When Muse and his fellow pirates speak English later to Phillips and the other Americans, their language is direct, forceful, clear. But the subtitles read like primer text from an English-language instruction book. Time and again, the Somali men are visually treated like a pack of dogs. Because they want to cause chaos, Greengrass chooses to render them chaotically, turning them from villains or murderers into outright cartoons. This makes his feeble attempts to flesh out their motives (the pirates are former fishermen driven by poverty to crime) feel a little two-faced: he wants those moments where Muse and Phillips can square off as dueling captains, but he also wants the enemy to stay nameless and suffer. Everything is slippery, drunken, off-kilter.

What’s even more troubling is Greengrass’s decision to employ that stylistic muddiness in the service of a film that’s mostly free of structure, causation, and other things that look plot. Hanks plays Phillips with a kind of steely Yankee determination, and after an opening scene in which he drives to the airport and kisses his wife goodbye, he’s off to the races: he gets his ship, sets sail for Kenya, gets hijacked, fights back, gets rescued. A lot happens, but quite often none of it has much to do with anything else. Life is annoyingly devoid of act breaks and clear meanings, but art is not. Art, in fact, is the way we bring those and other things to life in media as a way to reckon with the lives we cannot control. Captain Phillips feels a lot like United 93 in that Greengrass is betting everything he’s got that your knowledge that the film is real (well, real-ish) will do the heavy lifting re: dramatic intent and emotional resonance. Things that would ordinarily prompt confusion or concern are here just kind of brushed off. For instance, not long after putting to sea, Phillips gets an email from corporate warning him of pirate activity along his route. He doesn’t mention this to anyone or take any defensive action other than having his crew run a safety drill. Later, when the Navy gets involved, Captain Frank Castellano (Yul Vasquez) expresses concern over aggressive tactical moves and encourages his superiors to let him and his team negotiate with the pirates first. Why? What ramifications is he trying to avoid? What does he even care? No telling. Things like that — some little, some big — just kind of drift by because Greengrass is convinced that reenactments of real life don’t require the same plotting or motivation you’d normally get in a film. This is not only misinformed, but an underestimation of the audience. If Captain Phillips weren’t based on real events, it would just be an OK kind of movie about Tom Hanks getting kidnapped. But because it is, Greengrass doesn’t have less of an obligation to storytelling form. If anything, he has more.

As such, Captain Phillips remains a movie that can never stand on its own, and a messy one at that. Some of the emotions ring true, though, and that’s thanks again to the nuance and power of Hanks. He invests a real weakness and fear in Phillips, and he walks the trembling line between not knowing how things will turn out and not wanting to live to find out. Yet the most powerful scene doesn’t have anything to do with the pirates, or Phillips and his crew. It’s at the end, as Phillips is struggling with shock and trauma and survivor’s guilt. He’s sitting in the sick bay of one of the ships that rescued him, and while the medical officers ask him about his injuries, he’s unable to do anything but weep and moan and wrestle with his awareness of life’s fragility. And in these moments, Greengrass finally, blessedly, holds still, and we bear witness to a fleeting moment of humanity that’s beautifully acted and perfectly captured. Then the screen goes black, and it’s gone. That’s all we’re going to get. And it’s just not enough.

Most worrisome, pop-political blogging seems to inform the director’s content as well as his format. With United 93, Green Zone, and now Captain Phillips, Greengrass has assembled films that draw on real events and opt for a run-and-gun docu-drama style that’s meant to signify the filmmaker is telling the truth, re-staging things as if “you are there.” Yet the films craft thin, myopic narratives from larger real-world tapestries, trying in one swoop to both re-create real events but also re-shape those events, or at least trim the corners. There’s no broader context that informs them, and these chapters excised from the book of history are treated as complete stories in their own right. It’s not that you can’t make a film about these things and find the human truth in them; it’s that Greengrass’s focus is always and only on a hypocritical sustained tension, bludgeoning us with sound and fury even though, having lived through these events, we know exactly how things will end. His latter-day c.v. almost feels like trendy video essays made for talk-show talking points. Like blog posts, they hammer hard at your emotions, but in the end, they’re disposable. Captain Phillips is a frustrating monument to its own existence, as jumbled and half-sketched as a news story you’d haltingly tell someone a day after the fact. In his haste to wrap up us in the past, Greengrass has forgotten that we’re all in the future, and that there’s nothing more tiresome than listening to someone tell you what you already know.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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