Captain Phillips Review: A harrowing true story is one of the year’s best

When true stories like the one behind Captain Phillips happen, you can imagine Hollywood executives licking their lips in anticipation. “Yes,” they say, “this will make a great movie in a few years.” Not all “based on true events” films are created equal, but in the case of Captain Phillips, they’d be right.

It seems there are several news stories every year that capture our collective imagination like nothing else. In 2009, the harrowing story of the large American freight ship, the Maersk Alabama, being captured and taken hostage by Somali pirates off the horn of Africa, had people the world over glued to their television sets and news feeds. At the center of it all was the Alabama’s captain, Rich Phillips, an ordinary man forced into extraordinary circumstances.

The primary attraction to true-life underdog stories is, I believe, the fact that so many things could go wrong, and the miracle of this story is that all of those little things went right, or at least as right as could be expected under the circumstances. One wrong look, one calculated attempt at reconciliation too many, and you face a bullet to the brain.

Rich Phillips is a New England shipping captain who is tasked with captaining a large load of food and other relief supplies around the Horn of Africa. He and his crew know of the dangerous Somali pirates said to patrol these seas. They are eventually boarded by a small band of armed pirates as Captain Phillips is taken for ransom in a small lifeboat. The Navy attempts to resolve the situation peacefully as the world watches on.

The story is grade-A cinematic material, but portraying it compellingly on screen seems like a nigh-impossible task. After all, the story takes place on the ocean, in drab shipping containers and claustrophobic fishing boats. Enter director Paul Greengrass, perhaps the finest working director when it comes to filming true stories documentary style, less as movies than as actual lived experience. His United 93, about the plane hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 that ended up in crashing in a Pennsylvania field, proved so unbearably intense it caused people to walk out of the theater, and The Bourne Ultimatum is one of the more realistic action movies of recent years.

Such style works wonders here. Greengrass shoots everything in tight close-ups, concentrating on the furtive glance and the beads of sweat. Greengrass’ camera is restless, as it bobs, weaves and pans across nearly every shot. Those who were nauseated by Greengrass’ “shaky-cam” style in Ultimatum will not find any relief here, but it seems to me a perfect marriage of style and substance. The constant movement replicates the feeling of being on open waters, where even small conversations contains an added element of intensity. It helps the sometimes-drab surroundings come alive.

At two hours, the film feels substantial, not the least because it takes a good while for the hijacking to actually occur. In 2009, some wondered how a large shipping crew could allow itself to be hijacked by four pirates, but the film shows that they didn’t lie down quietly. The crew pulled out all the stops to prevent a boarding and, when it did occur, resulted to clever diversionary tactics and even a bit of guerilla warfare (barefoot pirate plus broken glass equals not a pretty sight).

At the center of it all is, naturally, Captain Phillips himself, played fearlessly by Tom Hanks. Here, Hanks gives one of the best performances of his career, displaying tremendous grace under overwhelming pressure. Hanks plays Phillips as a peaceful man, one who can’t bear the thought of violence even against his increasingly violent captors. Like Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, he is just trying to get home in one piece. The last 20 minutes of the film in particular will almost surely net Hanks a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

Greengrass and company wisely casted native Somali non-actors to play the pirates, and their performances and appearances are dead-on. There’s the small-but-fearless leader, Muse, and his rogue, violent right-hand man; the driver; and the teenage pirate who’s in way over his head. The actors, led by a chilling Barkhad Abdi as Muse, portray the pirates not as evil men but those simply doing what they need to survive. They, with the help of Billy Ray’s screenplay, give the pirates a humanity and even a sympathy that a safer Hollywood blockbuster would have glossed over.

It is in this humanity that Captain Phillips asserts itself as one of the year’s best films. Nobody wants anyone to die, not the pirates, nor the navy, nor Captain Phillips himself. When the Navy arrives, he pleads with the pirates to let him go not so much because he fears for his own life, but because he fears for theirs. The ending, which, as we all know, ends in spectacular violence, does not strike me as a particularly happy one. Everyone may be relieved that the lengthy ordeal is finally over, but Rich Phillips is not smiling as he is escorted out of the lifeboat and toward a reunion with his family. We get the sinking feeling he may not smile again anytime soon.

The dog did it: Living in a spoiler culture

Spoiler Alert, obviously. 

Several friends of mine were rather disappointed when a story appeared online about a fake obituary in a New Mexico newspaper for Breaking Bad antihero Walter White. Some articles mentioned the disappointment of the paper’s readers over having the character’s fate spoiled for them. But my friends reading the story were equally disappointed, because they hadn’t seen the finale either. I saw the story 4 days after the finale aired, but by then I had already seen it. Nonetheless, I recorded the finale during its Sunday night premiere and intended to watch it in the next few days. I didn’t even make it that long. My Facebook news feed tantalized me with complex analyses of the finale, but I avoided them. Then I saw that Stephen Colbert had interviewed show creator Vince Gilligan the night after the finale. I watched the interview, and when Colbert warned of spoilers, I figured he meant everything but the final episode (I had seen all but the last episode at that point). I was wrong. “Why did you decide to kill off Walter White?” Colbert asked Gilligan. I let out a little groan, knowing full well that the spoiler culture had gotten the better of me once again.

The word “spoiler” is an interesting one. It implies damaged goods, something that is ruined beyond repair. After all, something “spoiled” can’t really be “unspoiled.” But in some cases the term seems a bit strong. I watched the Breaking Bad finale, and knowing the fate of Walter White in advance did nothing to hamper my enjoyment of it or the surprises of some of the other twists and turns the finale took.

And yet, having something spoiled for us can elicit an intense reaction. In the case of Breaking Bad, we feel betrayed. After spending a good 60 hours with these characters and this world, we hear of its conclusion outside of that world, detached from the universe that we’ve become so attached to. It’s ending with a whimper what should have been ended with a bang. But Breaking Bad is far from the most egregious example. After all, Walt was doomed from the start. It’s not so much about what happens to Walter White, but how it happens. Thus, watching the show is not a waste of time even if we know how it ends.

In a show like Lost, which is even longer than Breaking Bad, the betrayal is more abrupt. Because the entire series is predicated on a twist ending, having it spoiled for you can feel like you’ve wasted a good chunk of your life watching the show. Once the mystery is unveiled, it loses a lot of its magic.

One major issue with the spoiler culture is the lack of consensus on the shelf life of our entertainment. After all, the Sixth Sense has been out for over 10 years, and people still get upset when I try to talk about the ending (the dog did it, by the way). How long does the rest of the world have to wait for us to catch up? A month? A year? 10 years? When does the world get to stop feeling sorry for me and my ignorance?

The problem is confounded by the seemingly perverse joy people have in ruining things for others. A friend of mine tried to talk to me recently about the absolutely stunning ending to the video game Bioshock Infinite. “I heard that game gets crazy,” he said. Luckily, I had long ago finished it, but I think he wished I hadn’t. Someone else had ruined the game for him, and all would not be right with the world until he ruined it for someone else.

Our digital, always-on lifestyle makes avoiding spoilers even more difficult. The best way to stave off Breaking Bad spoilers would have probably been to stay away from all social media contact for at least a week after the finale. But for someone like me, who gets so much of his information and news from his Facebook feed, I don’t see how that’s possible. The spoiler culture also tends to be elitist. Everyone is talking about this, and if you’re not a part of the club, you’re shunned from the community with those patronizing “spoiler alert” messages that tantalize: “Come on, what we’re talking about here is pretty awesome. Don’t you want to be cool? One peek won’t hurt.” In that article about the New Mexico newspaper obituary, the underlying message is “hey, you know that Breaking Bad finale? Well look what happened here.” Never mind that our answer to that question might be “no.” If we don’t know by now, someone is going to tell us.

Traditional work culture describes a “water cooler moment” as an entertainment or cultural event that everyone will want to talk with their work colleagues during breaks around the water cooler. The advantage to this is that you know when you need to stay away from the cooler to avoid spoilers (and who you need to stay away from). But online, the water cooler is everywhere, and there are no breaks. It’s like dozens of strangers screaming in your ear “hey, how about that series finale? Pretty cool, huh?” You can only tune out so many voices before one slips by.

So, what’s the answer here? Are we doomed to have great stories spoiled for us because we don’t experience them at the same time as others? I think caution and consideration on both sides can minimize the impact of the spoiler. If you’re a person that tends to spoil things for others, realize that there are people out there who care about great stories as much as you do, and that ruining a universe for someone else is kind of a low blow. And, if you’re someone who tends to feel the cold sting of the “spoiler alert,” my best advice to you would be to tread lightly. 

Gravity Review: Transcending the Impossible

Seven years is a long time to wait for a filmmaker as good as Alfonso Cuaron.  The Mexican director’s visual craftsmanship and panache for potent social and political commentary were last displayed in the 2006 masterpiece “Children of Men.” His new film “Gravity” eschews the potent, dystopian themes that made his previous film so memorable, opting instead for a much simpler lost-in-space tale. The result is an intense, effortlessly entertaining and expertly crafted thriller, and a shining example of how groundbreaking technology can turn a decent space flick into the movie going experience of a lifetime.

The plot, as mentioned previously, is a lost-in-space tale, and it first it doesn’t seem any more complicated than that. Medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran spaceman Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are in space repairing an American satellite when they receive news that a Russian satellite has blown up, and the resulting debris causes them to become tethered from their satellite and left adrift in space. The rest of the film is a relatively straightforward gotta-get-home scenario.

The film’s magic comes from its perfect marriage of 3D technology and special effects, the finest example Hollywood has yet produced. “Avatar” received praise for its special effects-generated worlds, but “Gravity” manages the much more impressive feat of making space feel real. This is not science fiction. From the odd floating pen or photograph to the ice forming on the window of a space pod, every frame of the film is so perfectly crafted and often achingly beautiful that it almost defies the senses. In my opinion, IMAX 3D is not optional here. The film earns every cent of surcharge.

Then there are the action scenes. As the famous tagline from “Alien” goes, “in space, no one can hear you scream.” But we don’t need extraterrestrials to make us do that. Space is the perfect killer in its own right. It can be hot or cold, beautiful or devastating. It’s everywhere, and it can’t die. One of the great strengths of the film is how it presents space as a main character, an unstoppable antagonist, right up there with Hal 9000 or Darth Vader. But no robot or Sith lord was ever this relentless. The action is astonishing in its scope and devastation, and lots of dangerous stuff flying at the screen will keep audiences firmly planted on the edge of their seats. Some might even fall off.

But special effects don’t amount to much without great characters, and Cuaron has given us one of the best in Bullock’s Ryan Stone. The timid amateur turned stone cold survivalist is always a fascinating transformation, but Dr. Stone has a character arc so satisfying it makes that trope somehow feel fresh again. Bullock gives easily her most physical and emotional role to date, and her role as the film’s sympathetic everyman is a shoo-in for an Oscar nod. She keeps the film, for all its flights of fancy, firmly grounded. Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ripley might have to give up her crown as the Queen of space.

The film is relentlessly paced, and feels perfect at 90 minutes. It goes in, kicks ass and gets out, leaving you breathless and begging for more. It’s rare for a film to satisfy so deeply on every level. For my money, “Gravity” is one of the great modern triumphs of the Hollywood studio system, which is so content to churn out soulless action blockbusters. It’s not exactly original, but it takes familiar concepts and makes them feel fresh again. And the film’s clear message that life, even when it feels like a constant struggle, is ultimately worth living is essential in an age where our media is increasingly concerned with a high body count and our culture is de-emphasizing the value of human life. The final shot brings this message home, and is powerful in its beauty and simplicity; a vast improvement over “Children of Men’s” unsatisfying non-ending.

“Gravity” is that all-too-rare type of movie: it transcends what we previously thought possible. It reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place. Run, don’t walk. Then see it twice, trusting that if it takes Cuaron another seven years to make a movie this good, it will be worth the wait.

Breaking Bad on the moral power of choice

This post discusses the series as a whole as well as the final episode in-depth. There be spoilers ahead. 

I’ve never considered television an art form. At least, not on the same level as film. Even some of my favorite, expertly-produced shows such as “24” are there primarily for escapism. “Breaking Bad” is the show that made me change my mind.

Over the past few weeks, I have binge-watched the show with everyone else, reveling in its expert acting, pacing and artistic flights of fancy (lordy, those camera angles). As the internet has confirmed, I’m not the only one singing its praises. But what has truly captivated us about AMC’s layered drama about a high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth after finding out he has incurable lung cancer is the challenging choices it forces its characters and, by extension us, to face.

Walter White’s universe is cold, cruel and, some might argue, bleak. But, it’s also a profoundly moral one. After the stunning series finale, it’s remarkable to see creator Vince Gilligan’s clarity of vision across five seasons. He has created a world where actions have profound consequences. And consequence, in TV and in life, is something we need more of.

We live in a culture of finger pointing. Everything is someone else’s fault, because that means we never have to own up to our mistakes. We sue each other at the drop of a hat. Our politicians are self-serving, cops have it out for us, our co-workers are all horrible people who can never fully understand our situation, and so on. The most refreshing thing about “Breaking Bad” in my mind is that it puts choice front and center, and no one gets off easy. Everyone makes choices, and they must deal with the consequences of those choices, even if they try to run from them. Gilligan and company have reminded us that our lives are little more than the choices we make every day. Good or bad, big or small, choice is really all we have.

Walter White knows this from the beginning. He knows the choice to start cooking meth will have tremendous consequences. Even as he lies to others, he owns up to his actions in his own mind. Near the end of season 4, he tells his wife, Skyler, “I’ve done these things and I alone am responsible for what happens. Not you.”

This is a true admission, but in another aspect Walt’s decisions are off base. He does what he does, including lying and plenty of murder, because he wants to provide for his family. But, in the world of “Breaking Bad,” that doesn’t fly, and we as an audience know that. If Walt’s is truly a world where it is only our actions that have consequences, then intentions mean very little. Skyler and Walt’s son, Walt Jr., prove this by refusing to accept Walt’s money. The man who has spent a year building a drug empire in order to leave money for his family when his cancer takes him can’t even provide that. His family didn’t care about the purity of his motives, only his actions which, despite intentions, threw their lives into chaos and disarray.

Jesse Pinkman, Walt’s cook partner and philosophical foil, reflects the power of choice even more strongly. Unlike Walt, Jesse has a deep and true conscience. He is racked with guilt when he is forced to shoot a man and when a child is needlessly killed during a job. Jesse’s world remains unclouded from a false pretense of motivation. He has done terrible things, and he has to find some way to live with them. He says this in a powerful scene during a drug rehab session. The counselor is telling him he has to move on from the mistakes he’s made, and Jesse calls this “bullshit.” It’s true. Jesse refuses to be a part of the blame culture by truly owning up to his actions and letting them sink in.

What I thought was so brilliant about the show’s series finale is that it pretty much subverted everything I just said. Some would call this a philosophical cop-out, but I would say it stayed true not only to the show’s universe but to the way the world often works. The most powerful moment in the entire episode (if not the entire show) is when Walt quietly admits to Skyler that he did not build a meth empire for his wife and kids. He did so because he liked it and because he was “good at it.” Does that change how we view Walt’s actions throughout the show? Motivation notwithstanding, Walt did some horrible things, and the universe of “Breaking Bad” seems to demand that he answer for them. But doesn’t this selfish motivation make us wonder whether he would have gone to such incredible lengths to protect himself and his money? Didn’t he see that his actions were hurting his family more than his money would ever help them?

Then comes the real kicker: Walt didn’t have to answer for anything he did. He died, yes, but he died free of the consequences of his actions. Who’s left to deal with those consequences? His family, who he seemingly tricked into taking his money by coercing his old business partner to gift it as part of a trust. His lawyer, Saul Goodman, who is set to live a cold, lonely life in Nebraska under a new name. All those Nazi guys he killed (they had it coming, sure, but still). And, most of all, Jesse. When Jesse drives away from the compound where he was held prisoner and forced to cook meth for a year, he begins to laugh. But, thanks to the always excellent acting of Aaron Paul, we wonder if maybe that laugh is turning into a deep, guttural sob. After all, Jesse still has the burden of living with all the horrible things he has done. Everyone he loves is dead. He has nothing In comparison, Walt got off easy.

Walt’s actions will continue to have tremendous consequences to those around him, even if he no longer has to deal with them. I’ve been rambling about the importance of choice, but the giant hole here is that the very reason Walt’s ever-captivating story was set in motion had nothing to do with choice at all. He didn’t choose to have cancer. His disease seemed a machination of blind, cruel fate. Viewed from this lens, Walt spent the next five seasons building an elaborate dream. He dreamt that he was powerful, that he was in control. But he never was. Cancer could have taken him at any moment. The one choice he could never make was the decision to not have cancer.

That’s what sticks with me about “Breaking Bad.” It doesn’t deal in clear answers or black-and-whites. The decisions we make have consequences, and actions truly do speak louder than words. That’s an important message, for sure. But there are times in our lives where we will have no control over what happens to us. We are not invincible. We need help. Do we cry out for assistance when everything starts to crumble? Or, do we continue to live in a fantasy world where we are in control? The fact that a TV show is forcing us to ask these kinds of questions is what will make “Breaking Bad” linger in the consciousness much longer than its admittedly stellar cinematic craftsmanship.