Captain Phillips

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Those of you who are familiar with my blog know that, every time I write a film critique, I notify the readers that the views I express are solely my own, and in no way must ANYONE feel obliged to agree with them. This week especially, I wish to reiterate that the readers do NOT have to agree with ANY of my opinions. In fact, I would rather like it if they didn’t. What I have to say about this week’s movie will be highly unpopular with some people, and I would absolutely love it if these individuals would come forth and explain, in a calm and collected manner, exactly why they disagree with me. Many people don’t realize it but, debate, even over small things like movies, is extremely significant. What debate does is offer people a healthy and exciting means through which to express their views. It allows all sides of a issue to be heard and, generally, facilitates the solving of that issue. It is something which we, as citizens of a nation where free speech is guaranteed by law, are extremely fortunate to be able to engage in, and if you will do me the great honor of reading and commenting on my review, I believe that we will be able to partake in that great fortune.

Anyway, the subject of today’s critique is Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the film is a biopic about the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. It was only released last Friday, and yet it already holds a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 82% approval rating on Meteoritic. Every review I’ve read of it has been positive. Rumors are even beginning to circulate that it will be nominated for, and win, several Oscars. Strangest of all is the fact that I didn’t like it. Wait! What? Yes. You heard right. I, Nathan Liu, aspiring author and amateur film critic, did not enjoy Captain Phillips. Did I hate it? No, not really. Rarely, if ever, have I found a movie with nothing to like in it, and Captain Phillips was not one of those movies. I liked the fact that my favorite actor–Tom Hanks–is the star. I liked the fact that there are several scenes shot in foreign languages–Somali and Arabic. I liked the fact that all the actors portraying Somali pirates are actually from Somalia. (I can’t even begin to describe to you how frustrating it is when I see a big-budget American movie set in another country, and yet none of the actors are actually from that country. Yes, Invictus and Hotel Rwanda, I’m talking about you.) Yet despite all these redeeming qualities, Captain Phillips is still weak in several areas, and it is these areas of weakness which I would like to focus on for the duration of this review.

The first thing I don’t like about Captain Phillips is the dialogue. It’s clunky, cliche, and in some cases, flat out devoid of emotion. About seventy percent of it boils down to the words “No,” “Don’t,” “Stop,” and “Please.” Now granted, seventy percent of the film focuses on the interactions between an American Captain (Hanks), and a group of Somali pirates whose English can only be described as broken. It therefore makes sense that the person who wrote the screenplay had the actors use simple words in these scenes. In reality, these people were probably only able to communicate on a very basic level. But the pirates’ dialogue isn’t really what I took issue with. What I truly took issue with was the dialogue that unfolded between characters who were native English speakers. I’m only a Senior in High School, and yet even I could have written more natural sounding lines than those that made it into this movie. Let me give you an example. In the film’s opening scene, Hanks and his wife are shown talking as they drive their car to the airport. Their conversation concerns normal, unimpressive things–work, their kids, etc. The screenwriter most likely chose to start the film off with this scene in order to give Hanks’s character, Captain Phillips, some backstory. The situation that Phillips finds himself in later on in the movie is pretty extraordinary, so it makes sense that the screenwriter should want him to look as ordinary as possible. If Phillips seems like your average, likable Joe, than the audience is more likely to have an emotional response when something bad happens to him. But the thing is, the dialogue in the opening scene does NOT make Phillips look like your average, likable Joe. It TRIES, very hard, to do this, but it is precisely this trying that undermines its ability to do so. I’ve taken several creative writing courses, and one thing that all my teachers have told me is to “show, don’t tell.” When you TELL the audience or the readers what to think, you distance them from the story and, therefore, decrease their enjoyment of it. There is a LOT of telling in the film’s opening scene. Phillips TELLS us that he thinks his son should work harder in school. He TELLS us that it is hard to get a job in this economy. He TELLS us that each voyage he embarks on is harder than the last. What all this TELLING does is make the character Phillips look like a fake person trying to come off as relatable. There are at least a dozen, more creative, ways in which the screenwriter could have conveyed all the aforementioned information about Philips to the audience. For example, Phillips thinks his son should work harder in school, so why not have a short scene in which he argues with his son about homework? Now, I understand that including a scene like this would make an already gratuitously long movie even longer, but I still think that the movie would be better overall. A film isn’t nearly as interesting to watch if it has crappy dialogue.

The second thing I don’t like about Captain Phillips is its cinematography. The whole movie is basically just one giant close-up of a person’s face after another. The director most likely did this in order to enhance the intensity of certain moments–If a character is frightened, then we, the audience, must be able to see their pupils right as they dilate. We must be able to see the sweat right as it forms on their brow. Also, the majority of the movie takes place on a cramped lifeboat, so perhaps the director thought that all these close ups might enhance the viewer’s sense of claustrophobia. Unfortunately for the director, these close-ups had the exact opposite effect on me. While I was watching the movie, I didn’t feel like I was trapped inside a tiny space with dangerous criminals. What I truly felt was A) visual overload at having to stare at something up close for so long, and B) disgust at the fact that  I could see every roll of fat on Tom Hanks’s neck. An image of a face doesn’t tell you anything about where that face actually is. A face could be in the corner of a lifeboat, or it could be in the front row of a massive auditorium. If the director truly wished to make the viewer feel as though he or she was in a tight space, then perhaps he should have used more creative shots, like birds-eye-views, to show how small the lifeboat really is. If he wished to convey anxiety or instability in a character, he could have used shaky shots or warped focus. All in all, what this lack of variation in terms of cinematography did was make the film look amateurish, as well as seriously decrease my enjoyment of the picture.

So there you have it. All the things I didn’t like about Captain Phillips. I’ve paved the way for a healthy debate. All you need do is respond. Now, I bet some of you are wondering, why does he want a debate so bad? Simple. Because debates help problems get solved, and we do have a serious problem in this country in terms of the quality of our cinema. We need to raise our standards for subsequent generations.

Alright, I’m signing off for today. Thank you so much if you  read this all the way to the end.

Nathan Liu.

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2 thoughts on “Captain Phillips

  1. Nathan-
    I finally got around to seeing Captain Phillips on Verizon’s Video On-Demand service. You’d think in this day and age it movies would come out quicker for people to rent. I think it’s easier to look for the flaws in a film than to praise it, so before I address your grievances and make my own, I’d like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Tom Hanks’ performance, particularly his portrayal of Phillips’ trauma in the final scene, was perhaps the best acting performance I’ve ever seen. But now to the good stuff:
    I think both your points about the contrived nature of the dialogue and the less-than-diverse camera angles are valid, but they miss the bigger picture. The dialogue acting alone may be straight out of a 7th grade English video project, but coupled with the close-ups to the actors’ faces, the script is far more powerful. One repeating exchange is when Captain Phillips urges Muse to surrender, to take the money and run, because he cannot possible negotiate with and then escape from the US Navy. To this, Muse always replies something to the effect of, “When we get back to Somalia, everything will be ok.” As the story progresses, as Muse and his crew get sucked further and further into a plot in which they will almost certainly end up dead or in jail, Muses facial expressions become less confident, and more terrified and desperate. The camera work is effective because for the exact reason that you stated: it makes us feel claustrophobic. In your comparison, a close-up on someone’s face in an empty auditorium would be extremely effective to demonstrate the person’s anxieties or fears of public speaking. Even if the person is physically free, he or she may be physically cramped. To that effect, the camera work in Captain Phillips effectively creates constant anxiety because we were so close to Tom Hanks’ fat rolls. I also have a feeling, from the look of it in outside shots, that the life boat was actually bigger than it looked from the camera angles provided inside it.
    My biggest problem with Captain Phillips had nothing to do with the dialogue or cinematography, or anything related to how the story was presented. My problem is the story itself. I watched the film with my sister, who, as a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, concerns herself greatly with the struggles of people in developing nations. She pointed out that the film is too ethnocentric. The bad guys are (black) Somali pirates. The good guys are predominately white Americans. Of course, Paul Greengrass tries to make the pirates seem less “bad” by giving Muse lines like “Everything will be ok” and emphasizing the youth of the pirate who cuts his foot on glass in the engine room. He also touches on the fact that it is warlords who have forced the crew to attack ships and loot ships and bring back the booty. But at the end of the day, Tom Hanks is still the hero, which overshadows any dismay that three Somalis are dead and one is in prison. They are not innocent, as Phillips has pointed out. They are not fishermen; they are pirates and kidnappers. While Captain Phillips relays a true story, and one helluva at that, it is not the story that needs to be told. The story that needs to be told is one like Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond (which we recently saw in Global Issues). The story that needs to be told is the one where warlords force simple and content fisherman at gunpoint to hijack commercial trading ships, some of which may be providing aid for African people, and take the profit for themselves. The story that needs to be told is one where boys become men and girls become women way too fast in a country that has been in Anarchy since the 1980s. My sister and I thought we would get a keen but brave look into the atrocities committed by the people of Somalia against each other. Instead we watched as the US Navy saved the day yet again, and everything was okay for our Great Nation.

    • Hi Daniel,
      First of all, thank you for reading and commenting on my review of Captain Phillips. While I strongly disagree with you in terms of your views on the dialogue and cinematography’s effectiveness, I do think you make a valid point in terms of movies like these ethnocentricity. I, like you, was disturbed by the fact that the conflict in this film was so (forgive the pun) black and white. These days, movies that have an underlying political message, or at the very least, the potential to have one, rely too heavily on the faces of white stars to sell tickets. Take Blood Diamond as an example. It provides Western audiences with a very intimate view of the illegal diamond trade, as well as an African conflict that most of us wouldn’t otherwise know about. It even raises some interesting questions about the degree of responsibility that we in the First World have in creating and sustaining these conflicts. At the very least, that’s what it’s trying to do. In reality, most people probably came to the theaters just to see Leonardo Dicaprio shirtless. Would somebody please explain to me how and why a movie about a West African Civil war ended up focusing on a white man? I honestly don’t see how his character is even necessary. If your goal in making the film was educating the West about the Civil war in Sierra Leone and the role of diamonds in sustaining it, you could have told that story without any white characters whatsoever. Okay, maybe you’d need one or two in a three minute exposition scene, but beyond that, no. This movie had so much potential, and yet it fell prey to the old white-washing monster. You see it everywhere in cinema these days. Look at the Hunger Games. In the books, Katniss is described as having black hair, olive skin, and almond shaped eyes. I don’t know about you, but to me that description conjures up an image of someone who’s mixed race or Native American. And yet the director chose to cast a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white woman. What you have here is a classic example of the not-so-subtle racism that has plagued Hollywood for decades. Filmmakers want to make money, and they believe that they can make more if their main character is relatable, and to them, a main character is only relatable if he or she is white. Why else would they cast a Jewish boy from LA (Jake Gyllenhaal) to play a Persian prince, or a white American actress (Angelina Jolie) to play a Black French journalist? Even movies like Flight or Invictus, which have persons of color in the leads, prominently feature white supporting characters to make racist audience members feel more comfortable. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you’re right Daniel. The movie industry simply cannot be trusted to accurately depict important moral or political issues, particularly those dealing with race or the developing world.

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