Movie Review: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo, USA 2014)

Sometimes, it’s good to watch films like this one so that you remember to appreciate those that try, even if they fail. The Monuments Men (George Clooney, USA/Germany 2014) was awful, but at least it was actually trying to be a real movie. As lame as it may have been and as low as its sights may have been, Oculus (Mike Flanagan, USA 2014) at least had sights on being a good genre film. Divergent (Neil Burger, USA 2014) may have been mostly an homage to hot teenagers, but . . . okay so that one wasn’t really trying either.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not a film. It doesn’t have a point or really even a plot. It has a character (though only one) that it’s using to sell the future films Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America 3 (title apparently not yet revealed), and Iron Man 73 (title estimated by me). It’s just using the star appeal of its title character to draw people in to tell them, “Hey, we’re going to do some cool stuff in those other movies!” (And I’m betting they don’t deliver on that promise.)

First, just to get it out of the way, I will note the one really good thing about this film: It’s not a cartoon. Big budget action movies like this are usually so overloaded with CGI that they are indistinguishable from Pixar’s work, but this one keeps the CGI under control much more than most. It’s certainly not CGI-less and frankly there is still more of it than there should be, but the Russos deserve some credit for trying to keep things practical. As a result, the actual picture quality of the film is exquisite–they have the money to make everything look good and don’t waste it on CGI, so it actually looks amazing (and yes it looks much better than any similar films that are coming out). Otherwise, the Russos and cinematographer Trent Opaloch don’t do much to make the film stand out visually, showing no command of color, lighting, or other elements or any ability to think outside the conventional box, but I would forgive that for the increased practicality, really.

The plot is a convoluted mess that makes it nearly impossible for the film to make a point. It falls into a typical trap for longer, bigger-budget films–it tries to make half a dozen points at once and so doesn’t make any of them. It tries to make the point that you have to trust some people in order to have their strength behind you when you need it (which is already a rather convoluted and specific point), the point that your past is never gone, the point that selflessness is always preferable to selfishness, and of course the point that freedom and security are often diametrically opposed forces. The S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra storyline is about freedom and security. The interaction between Fury and Captain America is about trust. The Winter Soldier subplot is about the ability to escape the past. And so, the film ends up not making a single one of these points but rather using them as themes. Themes like that are fine for longer works, but not for films–films don’t have the time to use themes–they have to make points.

The political overtones of the film are probably what the filmmakers would say that want us to pay attention to, and casting Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, USA 1975) star Robert Redford is a signal that they were considering the types of political thrillers that have often been his stock and trade, perhaps even specifically paranoid thrillers. However, they dilute it so much with the other plot elements that it’s impossible to give them any credit for that oversimplified political point. And along the way, they keep mentioning other Marvel superheroes who are in currently-active film series like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, shoehorning them into the dialogue for no reason other than to make some people in the audience think, “Man, I can’t wait for the next Iron Man movie.” How can you really be trying to make a point when you’re doing that once every three scenes? That’s what makes this film a commercial rather than a real film.

Acting-wise, this film generally gets by though it requires little of its actors. Chris Evans deserves special credit, because he really gives a depth of feeling to his character that the script frankly never gives him. There is a sense of weight and loss to his face in a number of scenes that we would not get were it not for his performance, and he deserves credit for not just doing that but doing it with real depth and subtlety. Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson (Whose name in real life should probably be Nick Fury, right?), the film’s official Overqualified Real Actors, are an oddly mixed bag. Jackson is surprisingly restrained in a role that could have easily been campy to the extreme in his hands. Johansson, for someone as smart and confident as she professes to be, spends an awful lot of the film cocking her head like a confused dog and looking around in wonder, though the oddness of her physicality actually makes her character seem more interesting than she otherwise is. Redford, meanwhile, is an absolute mess–he’s wooden and emotionless, like a man going through the motions repeating lines he does not want. Nobody else really stands out, though I did enjoy briefly seeing/hearing the Dream Lord. (And yes, that’s who he is to me. He may have been Dobby first, but that’s one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever.)

A word should go to Henry Jackman’s score. It may have been a little overly conventional at points, but overall it heightened the dramatics exactly as it should have throughout. It deserved a better film. And if Alan Silvestri’s theme from the first film that appears in the credits is any indication, it is a vast improvement over that earlier film.

Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not just a commercial for other films, but a pretty poor one. It’s too busy selling things to make its point, and so it completely falls apart in spite of an excellent score and lead performance.

Notes

  • In the first fight, TWS seems to be at least equal in strength to CA. In the second, CA is suddenly much stronger (though also ridiculously stupid, since he leaves the gun sitting right next to TWS). At least have some consistency in your stupid rules, guys.
  • “The first rule of being on the run: walk, don’t run.” No, the first rule is don’t spend the whole time with really sexy girls with bright hair–they draw attention. Raise your hand if you think you would be in a mall anywhere and not notice Scarlett Johansson. I bet we’ve got a crowd of full pockets.
  • Yeah, Macs, bitches!
  • If you’re being inconspicuous, shouldn’t you ditch the shield? But he has it when they get to the New Jersey base.
  • “Air conditioning is fully operational.” Nick Fury’s car has a sense of humor, right? It’s not really answering him, right? It’s much funnier if the car has a sense of humor.
  • I’m sorry but a shield is a stupid weapon. It was in 1941. It hasn’t gotten better.
  • It seems pretty obvious that Bucky basically got an evil version of the treatment that made Steve into Captain America. Steve really got screwed on coolness, though–Bucky gets a cool robotic arm; he gets a stupid shield.
  • I didn’t watch the first film. Is there a 10% of the brain myth mention in it? I have a bad feeling that there is. (As I recall, Captain America is supposed to be supremely intelligent as well, not just an essentially perfect physical specimen. Wikipedia seems to agree with my memory.)

Movie Review: “Captain Phillips” (Paul Greengrass, USA 2013)

Back in 2006, director Paul Greengrass took a break from making mediocre spy films to make United 93 (France/UK/USA), a controversial but truly remarkable film that showed that the filmmaker’s instincts in building tension and allowing it to explode that had served him fairly well in those spy films could actually combine with the emotional depth and hint of intellectualism that he had previously shown in The Theory of Flight (UK 1998) to make something far better than his earlier work—a film that had something to say, knew how to handle its characters’ emotions, and knew how to manipulate the audience’s emotions. Since, he has returned to the spy series with The Bourne Ultimatum (USA/Germany 2008) and tried to meld his action skills with some relatively obvious intellectual content in the surprisingly effective Green Zone (France/USA/Spain/UK 2010) but not really returned to the depth of United 93.

Until now.

Story-wise, the film is interesting enough on its face. It’s about a US ship captain whose ship is attacked by pirates who then hold him hostage when their attempt to take the ship fails. The US government then tries to get him out.

Captain Phillips is a film about the destructive power of competition (particularly economic competition), and it never loses its focus even as it tells a taut, powerful story with multiple interesting characters and excellent acting. Greengrass is not content to tell the true story that would surely have garnered his film plenty of attention or tell the audience, “Hey, in case you have forgotten, Tom Hanks can still act.” Instead, he makes a point and pushes it hard throughout the film, exactly as a director should do.

The film opens with its title character discussing with his wife that he worries about their son’s ability to find work in an increasingly competition-driven world. He laments, “When I was starting out you could make it if you put your head down and you just did your work. But young guys coming up now, companies want things fast and cheaper. Fifty guys compete for every job.” The point of the film is made right there in the first few minutes and it never lets up.

Throughout, we hear the pirates, Phillips, and others talk about “playing games,” seeing everything that they do as a series of attempted “tricks” in order to “win” over the other side. The one exception—the one group of people who “put their heads down and just do their work”—is the SEAL team that actually gets Phillips out. There is no hint of game playing from them, even when they do use a trick. They show up speaking no more than necessary, carrying only the equipment necessary for the job, and showing absolutely no sense of any life beyond the mission or sense of humor or empathy. The first naval negotiator attempts to use sympathy to get the pirates to talk to him, and it doesn’t work. The SEAL negotiator stays completely business-like in his approach, and it does work. Keeping their heads down and just doing their work is what works, not trying to win some big game.

The Somalis explain that the reason they have turned to piracy is that the US and similar wealthy nations have taken away all of their fish, leaving them incapable of using their greatest resource—the neighboring ocean—in order to survive. Economic competition has driven them to desperation and led to the United States creating its own enemy. In the end, when Phillips exclaims that it’s not his blood covering his body, it’s an exclamation not just of personal agony at what he’s been forced to endure but a plea for exoneration from his own part in creating the situation as an agent of US commerce. It’s a cry of sympathy for his former captors, even as he feels the relief of his escape. That entire scene works as something more powerful and deeper than what could be a melodramatic and overlong ending because of the groundwork that Greengrass has laid throughout the film with his focus on his point.

Visually, Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd use the same reliance on long takes and extra-shaky handheld cameras that they used to add to the realism and tension of United 93 (and that Ackroyd also used on The Hurt Locker [Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2008]) once again to excellent effect. They even add the extra element of using much smoother camerawork when showing us the SEAL team, again emphasizing the point that they are just keeping their heads down and doing their jobs. There isn’t really anything innovative in this work, but it is very effective at making the film’s point even stronger than it otherwise would be. They are a bit overly conventional in their use of color and lighting, but those are really very minor problems with how well the film does everything else.

The acting is another very strong point for the film, highlighted by an excellent lead performance from Tom Hanks. Hanks plays the intelligent, brave, heroic Captain Phillips with a remarkable physicality and strength that I would never have expected from the 57-year-old, walking with a strong upright stance and holding his shoulders high throughout, like the strong leader that he is. Then, after an already impressive performance throughout the film, he has to play that cathartic breakdown at the end, and plays it so gut-wrenchingly well that the entire performance seems even better for its presence. Meanwhile, Barkhad Abdi plays the only one of the pirates who really has any room to show any depth with an excellent amount of subtlety, giving us some insight into the tension and intelligence hiding just underneath his surface at all times. Nobody else really has room to do anything, but certainly no one stands out in a bad way.

Henry Jackman’s score deserves some credit as well, as it fits the mood of the film quite well but never draws too much attention to itself. At a few points, it really called to mind Billy Joel’s song “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” a song about a desperate fisherman whose livelihood has been taken away by industry. Throughout, it uses strong rhythms to add to the feeling of action and backs off to allow tension to grow. It’s a fairly restrained but excellent bit of work from Jackman.

Overall, this is an excellent film that hopefully will get Greengrass the attention he deserved but never got for United 93. It’s a film that has a point and makes it with every aspect of its work and every turn of its plot. In other words, it’s exactly what a film is supposed to be.