ARTICLE PATRIK SANDBERG
THE 2013 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL HAS ARRIVED, AND V IS ON THE SCENE TO REPORT BACK ABOUT THE HITS (AND MISSES) COMING SOON TO THEATERS NEAR YOU
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For its opening night, the New York Film Festival kicked things off with the big budget action flick of the moment Captain Phillips, based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates. Starring Tom Hanks as the controversial Captain Richard Phillips, the film was buzzy choice both for its high profile as a commercial action film and its lead actor, one of the biggest stars to grace the festival with his presence. At the NYFF opening party at the Harvard Club later that night, opinions from filmgoers seemed to be polarized, which is, oddly enough, not reflected in the title’s 83% rating on Metacritic. There were also reports that the film was met at the festival with a standing ovation, which did not happen, at least at the packed screening I attended. In any event, perhaps the action and the performances were enough please film critics, giving it a good push into its opening weekend. But despite frenzied and astute editing and kinetic, suspenseful direction on the part of Paul Greengrass, the film ultimately patronizes its audience with a prosaic, good-versus-evil plotline, heavy-handed positioning of Phillips as the film’s selfless hero, and a xenophobic refusal to go beneath the surface in the interest of understanding the story’s most dynamic and interesting characters, the pirates.
The filmmakers behind Phillips described newcomer Barkhad Abdi and his fellow actors who portray the film’s antagonists as the “skinniest, scariest-looking human beings on the planet” to the Hollywood Reporter—a statement that synopsizes the racist attitudes attached to the film and which gives a good inkling of the type of portrayals in store. In truth, Abdi was exceptional and charismatic as the pirate crew’s leader Muse, Phillips’s primary foe and the only English-speaking Somali character in the film, and he’s also quite good-looking. His acting future is promising to say the least. (He was also scouted from anonymity in Minneapolis, and who doesn’t love a success story like that?) In the role of Phillips, Hanks once again proves why he is one of America’s most dependable leading men. From his dad-like demeanor to his quiet panic as the pirates approach, to his simmering vulnerability as an ordinary man faced with great and unprecedented danger, Hanks carries the film’s tension in his subtle reactions and his frantic, nasal chatter. Based on the real Richard Phillips, Hanks employs a believable and often irritating Massachusetts accent that reads as blue-collar Boston, reminding viewers that in many aspects, these ship captains are no different than freight truck drivers hauling cargo from place to place. In the film’s final scenes, perhaps added for performance allowances alone, Hanks’s Phillips goes into shock mode, fighting off an emotional breakdown during his post-traumatic medical exam, and it’s one of the most riveting, incredible scenes performed by an actor this year.
The cinematography works stylistically with the film’s urgent and stressful pace, though it is tough to differentiate at times what makes this film any more noteworthy, than, say, an average episode of Homeland. The night scenes are striking in their beauty and sense of isolation in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean, and the climactic standoff scene belongs among the best action movie moments of all time. Though these elements are well-executed, they don’t save a story that is unapologetically one-sided. In the film’s opening scenes we are briefly taken out of the third-person subjective narrative structure to the shores of Somalia, where the pirates separate themselves into teams. It’s a misleading and pointless sequence that has us believing we may delve into the lives of Phillips’s captors, and learn more their motivations for engaging in these perilous and merciless captures—which never comes to pass. There is something to be said for the fact that these pirates, IRL, live in an impoverished, ungoverned nation where the fishing industry has dried up and that they are forced to watch huge commercial cargo ships taunt them as they cruise through their waters. But the filmmakers seem to want to convey none of this, as it’s much more exciting and simple to portray these villains as evil, brainless automatons within a larger system of piracy in which they are simply henchmen for some unseen, evil warlord. It’s a cheap, Disney-version of real events and phenomena that are much more complex, and for that, the movie and its audience suffer alike.
Images courtesy the New York Film Festival