Like drama for Dramamine: Captain Phillips **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 12, 2013)

In his “New Rules” segment on HBO’s Real Time program last week, Bill Maher issued an important advisement: “Before seeing the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips, liberals in the audience must be warned that yes, the bad guys in the movie are black…and we apologize.” Apology accepted, Bill. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not going to mention the teensy-weensy hint of colonial stereotyping I detected while watching the latest “ripped from the headlines” docudrama from British director Paul Greengrass.

Of course, I understand that Mr. Greengrass had no control over the fact that the pirates who hijacked the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama and took its captain hostage back in 2009 happened to be Somali nationals. Or that the Navy Seals came riding in (technically…rowing in) like the US Cavalry (along with seemingly half of the American fleet in the region) to take out three pirates and rescue one white guy. I mean, you couldn’t fantasize a more perfect mash-up for a director who specializes in real-world-based political dramas like United 93 or taut thrillers like The Bourne Supremacy.

And Greengrass does indeed run with it, enlisting screenwriter Billy Ray (State of Play, Breach) who co-adapted from the real-life Phillips’ autobiography, A Captain’s Duty along with the author and Stephan Talty, as well as relentlessly utilizing his signature “I think I’m gonna hurl” pseudo-cinema verite shaky-cam  (you’ll feel like you’ve been on a raft for three days by the end of the film).

There’s very little point in giving you a plot summary, as anyone who watched the events unfold on the nightly news will remember how it went down. Even someone too young to remember can logically assume that since it is based on the protagonist’s personal memoir about his ordeal with his captors, he doesn’t like, you know, (spoiler alert!) die at the end.

So the key to the success or failure of any such film dramatization lies in the artistry of its execution and/or visceral entertainment value; and from that purely cinematic standpoint, Greengrass does an expert job at ratcheting up the tension and the thrills (although I wish he could have kept that goddamned camera still long enough for me to regain my purchase at some point before the credits rolled).

In its best moments, the film recalls Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, in the way Greengrass uses the claustrophobic staging to present a cross-sectional microcosm of (in this case) the effects of globalization on impoverished third-world nations.

To his credit, Greengrass at least takes a stab at examining the sociopolitical factors fueling the pirates’ actions, particularly in several brief but well-played exchanges between Phillips (Hanks) and the Somali leader (Barkhad Abdi), but it feels perfunctory. Truth be told, Cy Enfield did a more effective job humanizing the “enemy” and reforming antiquated colonial stereotypes of Africans in his 1964 historical drama, Zulu.

Okay, the entertainment value is there, the acting is fine…so what’s my problem? I’m so glad you asked. It’s the same “problem” I had with Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. While I’m proud to be a ‘murcan and all, and thank (insert local deity here) everyday that there are dedicated men and women much stronger and braver than I putting their lives on the line protecting “our” interests around the world 24/7, I just really get uncomfortable with this whole booyah kill mission thing that we do so (disturbingly) well.

Greengrass tries for a hole-in-one, but drives his movie ass-over-teakettle into the same fist-pumping for the death squad sand trap Bigelow did. I guess I’m tired of expecting a Secret Decoder Ring, only to discover at the end of the day that  it’s just another crummy commercial…in this case, for American exceptionalism.

Anyone for a nice cup o’ hubris? Ovaltine?

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