Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

18 October 2013

An Adventure with Pirates

Captain Phillips is a good movie. It is well acted. It is a tense, nail-biting action movie for the entirety of its running time, and it is supremely well edited. But I never really warmed to it. I am not a huge Tom Hanks fan anyway, so perhaps that contributed. There are more reasons, though, I think.

Lots of good things, first: the trailer for Captain Phillips sort of makes one feel as though the film follows a cargo ship for a while and then pirates come and everyone freaks out and Captain Phillips plays the hero. But Greengrass is smarter than that. Phillips is not some good-guy, bad-guy film. This isn't an action movie like a Bond movie or one starring Jason Statham or something. Instead, after we follow Hanks's drive to work in the morning, the film follows the film's pirates and their lives. The film explains why they're hijacking ships in the first place, what the incentives are for them, the choices that are provided for them in Somalia, etc. These pirates are fleshed-out characters, and one feels as though one knows them individually from the first. It is a smart storytelling move that allows us to sympathize with and understand all five of the characters who make up the film's final act: the USAmericans and the Somalis.

And the film's finale is just extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it. If I was frustrated with Captain Phillips for much of its running time, the way Greengrass ends his film seemed to me unique and bizarre and just great. It was moving and uncontained and Tom Hanks is extremely good in this last sequence of the movie.

The thing is: Captain Phillips – for all of its excellent suspense and action sequences – couldn't make me stop thinking about money. There is no security on this cargo ship. An odd thing considering that everyone knows that there are pirates in the waters off the East coast of Africa. And then everyone is ordered to do their jobs. Phillips keeps the ship on course instead of moving into safer waters because the shipment needs to be delivered on time (in order to keep costs down, clearly).

But then the ship is boarded. And the military flies in and-I-quote half the U.S. Navy to rescue these guys. Millions of dollars are spent. Three giant military ships surround Captain Phillips. Staff are working around the clock. And all I could think the entire time was one single dude with a machine gun could've prevented this. Presumably that man wasn't hired in order to keep costs low, but the result of that cost-cutting is the enormous, ludicrous level of expenditure that is a U.S. military rescue mission. This isn't what the movie is about, really, but I couldn't help thinking that private security would've solved a problem that this USAmerican company instead asked the U.S. military to solve.

In the first place, this is what we do in the United States: depend on the government and find reasons to make government bigger. And in this way, pro-military factions of the government are just as dependent on big government as politicians who want more money spent on domestic social programs. In fact, smaller government for the neo-conservatives has never actually meant small government at all: it means, in fact, less social spending and more military spending. A real small government would mean that the U.S. military would never have been involved in a hostage situation like Captain Phillips's. Because the company sailing in international waters off of the east coast of Africa would be taking care of itself instead of looking for a government bailout. Bailout, handout, what's the difference? The difference is scale. Helping out people out home costs a good deal less than the technologies it takes to police the rest of the world.

In the second place, I now read in the New York Post that the real Cpt. Phillips is not a hero at all but contributed to the capture of the ship through his own willful negligence. He ought to have been 600 miles off of the coast and he was only 235 miles away. Why was he so close to the coast of Somalia? I'm gonna guess it has to do with money.

As for Oscar: Captain Phillips will probably grab several nominations next year. Tom Hanks seems like an easy get for Best Actor (he is so good), and his foil Barkhad Abdi will likely snag a supporting nomination. Editing, Directing, and Picture seem like obvious nominations as well. I'm not sure how everyone feels about Captain Phillips but I doubt it can be ignored come awards season. It is the most tense 2 hours I've spent in a really long time.