On the past two weekends, I've seen two significant films: Gravity and Captain Phillips. They're worth some discussion. In reverse order--and not just because I saw it yesterday--Captain Phillips is a screen triumph. It is an action-adventure flick, starring the seemingly endlessly reinvented Tom Hanks. The group of hitherto (at least in the U.S.) unknown actors who play the Somali pirates his merchant ship encounters are superb, as are the U.S. Navy personnel--from a ship captain to a SEALS commander to a medical corpswoman.
Paul Greenglass's direction never loses the tension and intensity of the situation as it develops. Some reviews I've read suggest that he leans in the direction of even-handedness in his depiction of the deprived circumstances in Somalia that push the pirates toward their trade, along with the irony that the merchantman is carrying, among other cargo, some food to be delivered to Africa as foreign aid. One critic even proposed that the movie raises the question of the ethics of foreign aid itself.
To me, all of that is bunk. I do find it enlightening when abroad to be exposed to foreign media that may be much more critical of the U.S. than seems to be the norm domestically these days. But even if this director is British--one of the fun conceits has the ship trying to contact the U.S. maritime command to report a possibly imminent pirate attack and not getting an answer, only to then dial the UK number and getting an immediate response--I found all my sympathies going to the stoical Vermonter whom Hanks plays as ship captain.
He's less taciturn than Vermonters have the reputation for being--recall all the Coolidge jokes--but then he's trying to engage an obdurate enemy through conversation. Even though this is an action-adventure movie, I also found it remarkably believable. Now that may have something to do with it being based on the true story, as related in his own memoir by said Captain Phillips. Incidentally, one review pointed out that the real captain, as it so often turns out in real life, penned a somewhat boring tome.
Final verdict--thumbs or my whole hand up. This is a 130-minute-long feature that holds your attention the whole way. The acting by everyone is excellent and the direction never misses a beat.
Gravity is another story. Yes, it's enjoyable, and Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are charming and thus hold your interest and attention during a space voyage gone bad. This picture is only 90 minutes in length, however, but seems a good deal longer. The presentation of the space travel and walking is good, although a more technically-knowledgeable friend advised me that it was not especially realistic.
I found it tedious. Charm only carries you so far. I didn't lose interest but I did look at my watch. It was fun hearing the earth-based flight director's voice--which is all you get of him--played by Ed Harris, remembering how fine a job he did in the wonderful Apollo 13. Both these films were awarded four stars or the equivalent by critics en masse. Captain Phillips deserves them.