On 'Captain Phillips,' 'A Hijacking' and the year of movie twins

Posted by · 11:24 pm · October 11th, 2013

LONDON – “Captain Phillips” provided a sober kickoff to the London Film Festival on Wednesday, segueing into an Opening Night party that was, thankfully, anything but. It was, in many respects, the right choice of curtain-raiser: riveting enough to hold a large audience, cinematic enough to fill the huge screen of the Odeon Leicester Square, with the added value of a homegrown director in Paul Greengrass and a red-carpet draw in star Tom Hanks. Also — and not to put too fine a point on this, but the horrors of 2011 opener “360” haven’t yet been forgotten — it’s actually a good film.

Still, it wasn’t exactly a celebratory one, and if I felt an odd twinge after walking from this two-hour-plus reconstruction of an unimaginable human ordeal into an evening of amaretto sours and celebrity-spotting — not to mention imagining the unheard exchanges between Tom Hanks, Tom Ford and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband — that was largely to the film’s credit.

“Captain Phillips” isn’t misery porn, and it’s too brisk and orderly to feel like it’s wallowing in the title character’s pain — even with that pain stretched to 134 minutes. But it is a film more about suffering than survival, one content to present both its white middle-class hostage and his have-not captors as differing kinds of victim. Where some of Greengrass’ other fact-based films have pursued a stony detachment from the atrocities under scrutiny, this one boasts a passionless moral conscience: questions of right and wrong are in play here, if not actively addressed. More, perhaps, than in any of his previous work — even the Oscar-winning whiz-bang pyrotechnics of “The Bourne Ultimatum” — Greengrass is luxuriating in the heft of Hollywood studio craft, but his film’s upper lip is resolutely stiff.

In a sense, the ironclad craft of “Captain Phillips” is its narrative: many viewers will already be aware how Richard Phillips’ story turned out, so it’s the mechanics and sensory realities of the situation that hold more intrigue than the outcome. (If any recent film better defines the difference between “tension” and “suspense,” I can’t think of it.) Billy Ray’s script is a thing of terse proficiency, but editor Christopher Rouse and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd — both on their most disciplined, electrified form, with Ackroyd rebounding from the botched aesthetic of last week’s release “Parkland” — play as much of a storytelling role here, vividly defining physical space and perspective, shrinking and modifying both in accordance with the characters’ exact degree of panic.

The film boasts a very good performance by Tom Hanks, and an even better one by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, with the former astonishing in a closing scene that opens the faucet on the professional retention of fear and feeling that Phillips maintains throughout his kidnapping. It’s as emotionally acute a moment as Hanks has ever had on screen, and is destined for Oscar-clip status, even if its climactic catharsis — while hardly in spoiler territory — shouldn’t really be viewed out of context.

Abdi is granted no such moment, which makes the psychological specificity of his hair-trigger invader Muse all the more impressive: a visibly nervous captain with none of Phillips’ patience or practicality, he nonetheless has a go-for-broke desperation — born of nothing-to-lose social circumstance — that somehow wrests him the upper hand for much of the fracas, even as his inevitable defeat looms large. Days later, I’m still wondering if the strength of Abdi’s performance — abetted by those of his three wired, restless Somali co-stars — lets the film off the hook for an element of indecision in its characterization of the pirates: Ray’s script grants them broadly sympathetic motivation, but little personal detail or backstory. Perhaps he and Greengrass were cautious of assuming a patronizing, bleeding-heart tone toward the criminals while also requiring viewers to root for a heroic escape that can only end badly for them.

If “Captain Phillips” finally amounts to no more than the sum of its parts — not exactly a slight when the parts are this considerable — it may be the artifice of its assumed objectivity that’s getting in the way; it’s the rare film that might seem a little more even-handed if it were a little more expressive. (I have similar reservations about Greengrass’ much-revered “United 93,” so obviously mileage will vary on this one too.)

Why, then, was I more moved by 2013’s first thriller to pit the wits of white seafarers against Somali pirates? If anything, Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s far more modestly scaled “A Hijacking” (which I reviewed for Variety at Venice last year) is even more rational and refrigerated than Greengrass’ film, and makes even less of an attempt to humanize the other half of the equation. Yet it felt the more human of the two to me, less concerned with the palpitating, immersive immediacy of the hostage dilemma — which is just as well, since it hasn’t the technical wherewithal to compete with “Phillips” on that front — and more with the fragile politics of negotiation. 

Much of the most compelling action — if that’s the word — in “A Hijacking” is far removed from the scene of the crime, putting the onus on the dry, polite CEO of the affected shipping company to defuse the drama from the comfort of corporate Copenhagen. The audience isn’t even party to the invasion of the ship itself — one of the rhythmical and atmospheric trump cards of “Captain Phillips” — though the film doesn’t want for sweaty-palmed peril once the deed is done. Lindholm (a collaborator on Thomas Vinterberg’s more melodrama-inclined “Submarino” and “The Hunt”) places human life as currency in a drawn-out transaction between the Danes and the Somalis’ most agreeable spokesman — an agonizing matter of months when the initial demand is $15 million, and the initial offer $250,000. That’s not to say human life is secondary or disregarded, however: the film’s own chilliness (and its gut-punch of a third act) seems a comment on the questionable effectiveness of first-world diplomacy.

It should be clear by now that “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking,” for all their remarkable, coincidental narrative overlaps, are very different films with very different strengths: I do wonder how much my preference for the latter is dictated by the simple fact that I saw it first, and went into Greengrass’ film at least somewhat primed for its situational shock. Neither film invalidates the necessity of the other, and I imagine they’d be rather productive viewed in close succession. If you haven’t seen “A Hijacking” yet, it rather cannily hits American DVD shelves next week — smart move, Magnolia — so the option of a bracing (if gruelling) double-bill is yours.

Indeed, 2013 is beginning to seem the year of the cinematic twin-pack: pairs of films, premiered or released in relatively swift succession, that are so specifically alike in subject matter as to be mutually interest-enhancing, even in cases where one is emphatically better than the other.

Earlier this year, and in a significant different action register from the Somali-pirate combo, we had “Olympus Has Fallen” and “White House Down,” a delightfully soft-headed brace of Capitol-under-siege films whose subtly different brands of reactionary, in-the-name-of-something vigilantism (and very different ideas of America’s optimal fantasy POTUS) said more about the present political layout than either film intended on its own. (“White House Down” was also one of the best studio movies of the summer, but that’s a conversation for another time.) Just yesterday at the London Film Festival, I saw the second half of what could be a fascinating Israeli-Palestinian standoff in the foreign-language Oscar race: two similarly plotted, similarly furious thrillers — Israel’s “Bethlehem” and Palestine’s “Omar” — about across-the-wall tensions as experienced by turncoat police informants that have much to say individually about the dire futility of that unending territorial conflict, but even more together. (More on “Omar” soon.) 

When I mentioned this odd trend on Twitter yesterday, people were quick to come up with other examples, albeit ones slightly more abstract in their parallels: the teens-gone-wild duo of “The Bling Ring” and “Spring Breakers,” or the solitary survival tales of “Gravity” and “All is Lost” (which could also, in a mordantly prankish way, be mashed up with “Captain Phillips”).

In the past, practical industry thinking has deemed such doubling unfortunate for at least one of the films involved — usually the second, if they’re of an equivalent commercial scale. Remember how Milos Forman made his own “Dangerous Liaisons” (titled “Valmont”) a year after Stephen Frears? Most people don’t. Ditto “Capote” and “Infamous,” “Braveheart” and “Rob Roy” or 1991’s sparrings Robin Hoods (one relegated to TV in the US). This year, “White House Down” felt the commercial brunt of the second-born twin effect, though “Captain Phillips” is hardly in a position to be affected by “A Hijacking.” Still, at a critical level, I’m surprised to find myself intrigued rather than jaded by all this pairing-up — particularly in cases when the filmmakers going head-to-head are as mutually yet contrastingly smart as Paul Greengrass and Tobias Lindholm.

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