Captain Phillips [2013]

The main problem with most films “based on a true story” is that any conception of reality got ditched from the screenplay about 2 re-writes and 5 drafts ago. Reality got replaced by something like the three-act structure that you hear about all the time. The reason that happens is because there is something dramatically unsatisfying about real life most of the time, even when it’s really interesting for other reasons. It does not have clear dramatic arcs, it doesn’t have cleanly demarcated morals, it is often meandering. In order to make a gripping story that engages the audience, the screenwriter often needs to streamline, simplify, and sharpen. Rush works as well as it does in part because the venue of the story, Formula-1, suits these typical alterations very well.

I am reluctant to buy too much into the so-called “3 Act Structure” or any of the other storytelling “rules” that have been variously touted as the guiding principles of modern Hollywood films. While those concepts are often illustrative, they are often applied uncritically, and are always more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. But there are some clear strategies used over and again, and for my purposes in this review, the key strategy is the conflict cycle. Conflicts in cinema work on a general pattern of establishing the characters on either side, then showing the stakes involved, then juxtaposing the characters.  These are often in line with a kind of Iconic character construction, outlined by Robin Laws in Hamlet’s Hit Points. Again, I think Rush is a solid example – the two main characters’ iconic natures are established, then the stakes of their conflict are outlined, and then they are put into the same frame. Rush essentially repeats the same conflict several times in succession, in a kind of progressive double-or-nothing escalation. Who will win the Formula-3 race? Who will break into Formula-1 first? Who will blink over the dangers of the race-track? Ultimately – who will become the World Champion?

I think we can see a clear origin for this kind of storytelling in Homer’s Iliad. Homer establishes who Achilles and Hector are, he shows them in context, he outlines the stakes that each will have in their conflict, and then he throws them together. The genre which makes the clearest and most direct use of this strategy is probably the Western. Almost all Westerns are predicated at some level on this kind of story cycle.

With that lengthy conceptual introduction in place, we come to Captain Phillips. The basic story is that a freighter is invaded by Somali pirates, who kidnap the Captain of the freighter to use as a hostage. The situation is eventually resolved by American military force. We could think about it as having a 3-Act structure, because there is a clear first act, where the initial conditions for both sides of the conflict are established, a middle act, where the ship is invaded, and a third act where the pirates flee back to Somalia with their captive. Each of these acts is actually roughly equal in length too, which makes the description of “3 Acts” a lot more useful than most applications, where they are vastly different in length.

Thinking about the film in this way shows a reasonably major problem. Each of these acts is in some sense discontinuous from the others. The situations and parameters established in the opening act have no direct bearing on how either the middle or the third act plays out. For example, there is a long opening sequence where Phillips talks about his children with his wife, and his concerns for their future. The children and wife are never explicitly mentioned again. In other words, if you completely removed Act 1, there would be virtually nothing rendered unintelligible in Acts 2 and 3. There is a little more continuity between Act 2 and 3, but even then, the bulk of the detailed activity from Act 2 can be completely forgotten going into Act 3. The problem connecting Act 2 and 3 in this stance would be that the over-arching conflict for Act 2 would appear to be whether the Pirates can capture the ship – they fail, but only partially, since they take Phillips as a hostage, which means there is no clean resolution when thinking about the Act as a whole.

If we put aside the 3-Act structure, and look at a finer gradation, we can instead look at the film as a sequence of conflicts between Philips and Muse, the leader of the pirates. In this stance, we can see the conflict cycle being set up in what was Act 1. We see the characters being established in context, and we get some notion of who they are – which is to say, what tools they bring to the conflict. What we aren’t really shown, however, is what the personal stakes are for each character. Near the end of the drama we are told that Muse must bring back the ship or he’ll be killed by his bosses – but at 3/4 of the way through the story, it’s too late to make us invested that outcome. Similarly, we know that Phillips wouldn’t like to lose his ship to pirates, but aside from that being generically undesirable, we’re not clear what that means specifically to him.

Thinking about the film as a sequence of conflicts thus shows a different problem, which is that we have a series of conflicts where the stakes are unclear. This means that most of the conflicts feel inconclusive – they don’t seem to significantly advance the agenda of either half of the larger conflict, and they have no context larger than themselves. This is a smaller scale replication of the 3-Act structural problem: taking out any random of the numerous conflicts makes virtually no difference to subsequent events. The conflicts, that should be driving an emotional response, become white noise.

Robin Laws proposes that we can evaluate a work by tracking whether we feel hope or fear for the protagonist. Each story beat moves us either toward hope, or fear. For me, the basic problem with Captain Philips was that the lack of clarity around stakes or outcomes meant I had no emotional response to the “conflicts”. In the nomenclature of Frye’s The Secular Scripture, it is an “And Then” story, with all the limitations of that storytelling mode.

This film is getting quite good reviews, and so far has around 8.1 on IMDB, and 94% approval on Rotten Tomatoes. While explaining the emotional reaction of others is always a stretch, I think that the most likely explanation is that others are more able to empathise with the characters on a moment-by-moment basis. Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, who play the two main antagonists, are both strong screen presences – a couple of Oscar nods wouldn’t shock me at all. I think the intimate hand-held camera style assists with giving the film a veneer of realism that also helps build empathy – a technique that Paul Greengrass has relied on a few times before. I also think that audiences are probably responding well to each of the three narratives in turn – they are inherently dramatically rich scenarios.

I am not sure that this film would be improved by retrofitting a stronger story structure. In some ways, its loose structure frees it from the sterility of your typical “based on a true story”. I doubt I would have bothered spending a couple of hours and 1200 words on yet another mass-produced film-by-numbers, just as I didn’t bother for Rush, a film I enjoyed an awful lot more. Yet, nor can I think that despite its flaws, it’s a genuine attempt to innovate. Beat-by-beat, it’s a bit too conventional for that.

If you are a film-goer that can live in the moment, I think you’ll enjoy this film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you somehow feel a little unsatisfied when you walk out the cinema.

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