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Oct 29, 2013

Captain Phillips movie review: bus stops, billboards and HMS Hanks

Paul Greengrass' breathlessly intense drama Captain Phillips is being marketed as a Tom Hanks movie. What impact does that have on the film's quasi-documentary grasp of realism?

Captain Phillips

See itPosters advertising high seas hostage drama Captain Phillips depict a close-up of Tom Hanks, prickly and unshaven, looking somberly ahead, a funereal glaze washing over his eyes.

Hanks’ name appears in bright red letters above the title. Its colour-matched to the words “based on a true story” which sit below a clump of squashed credits naming cast and crew, including the person who directed it: Paul Greengra-something-or-other.

It’s not his name that matters. “From the director of The Bourne Ultimatum” carries more currency with mainstream plebs and PR bootlickers, a line that hints at the old Hollywood dictum that you’re only as good as your last picture (or the last one the general public remember you for).

Likewise, the Captain Phillips one-sheet is a fitting example of how movies are marketed these days. This flick was made by a guy who made this other title you’re statistically most likely to have seen — if you haven’t you at least recognise the brand (it’s Bourne, B.O.U.R.N.E.) — and stars an actor who brings with them celebrity baggage and loosely defined audience expectations.

In this case it’s Tom Hanks and his famous everyday man shtick, a nice fit with the film’s workman-like title. That’s a shtick the 57-year-old actor has carefully cultivated through a range of performances in which he worked hard to prove he could have been your brother, your dad, your uncle or your neighbour, and not a power-wielding Californian charlatan rich beyond your wildest dreams.

But no matter. Hanks is very good as Phillips, captain of a huge cargo ship boarded by Somali pirates in the Somali basin who desperately tries to keep cool while his crew hides in the engine rooms below like panicked animals: silent, scared and weapon-less.

The point is how a thoughtful upper crust Hollywood dish such as this is packaged for the proverbial back row, the people who whoosh past billboards and posters at bus stops and think “hmmm, maybe” and the seed is planted.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing if it brings audiences to a quality film they may not have otherwise seen. That logic explains the casting of Hanks in the first place. He’s both the salesman and the porter, the door opener for a coke-and-popcorn populace who could just as easily have wandered into some other cinema and seen a different movie advertised with another famous person’s mug on the poster.

If the gear turners in the movie marketing biz assumed consumer knowledge and weren’t driven to seek the quickest and most effective shorthand, the poster for Captain Phillips would have touted Paul Greengrass’ shuddering 2006 terrorists-on-the-plane 9/11 drama United 93 rather than his Matt Damon franchise pic. Not because United 93 is Greengrass’ best film (which it is) but because it most closely fits what viewers can expect when they board HMS Hanks.

Adapted from a memoir, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea, the film is visceral and unsettling, a victim of its own sea sickness. It’s shot with the kind of shaky-cam that sends David Stratton convulsing into the night, awakening in cold sweats to curse the ease with which today’s filmmaking yoof (Greengrass is 58 but no matter) disregard the time-old tripod.

Captain Phillips‘ aesthetic is vintage Greengrass: cinema of the moment with a festering voyeurism so insular it barely seems to exist beyond the boundaries of the frame. That “you’re here” feeling is what makes United 93 so terrifying.

Greengrass’ grasp of verisimilitude in Phillips is shaken only by the casting of Hanks, who brings with him elements beyond the director’s control. Having deliberately recruited no-name actors in United 93 (as well as non-actors rekindling real-life roles) to heighten its realism, there’s no doubt Greengrass knew what he was losing by hauling in Hanks’ hefty shoulders and what the film’s exterior reality (marketing, box office, buzz etc.) would gain from them.

They say politics is the art of compromise. Given the intensely collaborative nature of the cinematic medium and the many creative sacrifices made on the road to the red carpet, few directors would argue the same doesn’t apply to their trade. Movies with no-name actors rarely win major Oscars, such is the nature of Hollywood’s beloved star system, just as posters without famous faces rarely make it to bus stops and billboards.

Captain Phillips’ Australian theatrical release date: October 24, 2013. 

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5 comments

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5 thoughts on “Captain Phillips movie review: bus stops, billboards and HMS Hanks

  1. W H Chong

    Indeed!
    For those who asked nicely the movie is terrific (no, not flawless but what is?), and Hanks is amazingly good.
    Our Cate “acts”; in Blue Jasmine she is acting relentlessly — Hanks raises his eyebrow and sub-flinches, and at movie’s end, does this thing for about 8-10 minutes which everyone can feel is true. The Oscar is his.

  2. Sharilynn Gerchow

    Soooo – how was the movie anyway?

  3. Stefanzi

    Very little said about the movie. Was it a film review, criticism of movie posters designed to grab attention, Paul Greengrass’s underappreciation or Hollywood in general? A 14 paragraph article that spends just over two discussing a movie out is supposed to be reviewing, a movie that has controversy surrounding Phillips actions, (he chose to sail the boat into the area despite many warnings, lawsuits still pending) yet the author decides to discuss the poster and the supposition that Greengrass would but have used Hanks given the choice even though Hanks was attached before the director.

    Just review the movies, leave opinion to editorials.

  4. Burt Steen

    Sure Hanks will do a great job but the movie will probably avoid the funniest parts of the true story: http://www.cracked.com/article_20369_5-major-news-stories-that-forgot-to-tell-you-best-part.html

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