Paul Greengrass has carved out a niche for himself as a director of smart, political, white-knuckle action movies—combining the immediacy of documentary film-making with the scale and expert manipulation of the best studio thrillers. Most famous for the second and third Bourne movies, whose shaky-cam style has now become the (poorly-imitated) template for a decade of Hollywood action films, it’s the projects he made in between, specifically Bloody Sunday and United 93, that are the real thematic precursors to his latest offering: meticulously researched re-creations of explosive international incidents, that function as both edge-of-your-seat thrill rides and complex commentaries on the seemingly unsolvable ideological conflicts of our modern age.
What’s remarkable about Captain Phillips is how powerfully it reverberates beyond the confines of its tight, streamlined plot: the real-life hijacking of a US cargo ship by Somali pirates, and the subsequent kidnapping of its Captain. By showing the circumstances of the pirates’ lives—where working for the local warlord seems the only alternative to fishing the empty seas—and treating them as flesh and blood characters instead of traditional African villains (see Black Hawk Down, which treated the Somalis as faceless black zombies to be gunned down without consequence)—Captain Phillips somehow manages to make its incredibly tense story feel like the small ripple of a much larger economic problem. By the time the US Navy shows up with all its might, we get a shocking sense of what the unlimited power of the American Empire must look like to the poorer nations of the world, and the incredible, unforgiving disparity between them. By no means justifying the pirates’ actions, we get a clear sense of the desperation that drives them, and in Barkad Abdi’s electrifying performance as their leader Musa, a worthy counterpart to Tom Hank’s most un-showy, embodied role in years.
Ultimately, by choosing to end with the trauma of the aftermath rather than the uplift of victory, Hanks and Greengrass undo the myth of the indomitable American hero, leaving us with something far more human, moving, and troubling—our utter inability to stop the violent tide of an unequal, globalized world, no matter how large our military might be.
A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke’s seventh feature is the first to blend action-genre dynamics into his slow moving, critically adored meditations on life in modern China, with powerfully thrilling results. Taking four stories from the headlines, each detailing a character’s eventual spiral into violence, A Touch of Sin creates a multi-layered look at the cracking seams of China’s rush to capitalism, as greed, corruption and exploitation become the new normal. A disgruntled mine worker in a northern village, a wandering sociopath with a gun, a female receptionist in a sauna-cum-brothel, and a dead-end-job roaming youth—the four protagonists are only barely linked, their stories allowed to play out in their entirety, but what becomes fascinating is how the structure of each informs the other, so that by the second and third we know with absolute certainty that things will end in someone’s blood.
As with Paul Greengrass, Zhangke real interest lies in real-world, authentic, socio-political consequence, cleverly using genre tropes to hook the audience while he slips his larger message in. Beautifully filmed, compelling (though the first and third stories are definitely the most successful), and inevitably bleak, it’s amazing that this is the first film of this director’s to be actually financed by the Chinese government, given it’s devastatingly pessimistic look at the spiritual and moral corrosion of a rapidly expanding super-power, and all those left behind in its wake.
Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut feature is impossible to separate from the fascinating circumstances of its making: a film about the repression of women’s voices in Saudi culture, made by a woman from within that very culture. And yet, thankfully, the film itself is a small gem of clever screenwriting and compassionate, well observed detail.
No doubt influenced by the neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief, which similarly used a deceptively simple story of a child, a parent, and a bicycle to document the social mores and tensions of its setting —Wadjda essentially tells the story of a spunky 13-year-old girl’s quest to procure a bicycle, in a country where bike-riding —like almost every other activity—is seen as exclusively for men. While to a western viewer, witnessing the repressive force of the entrenched patriarchal system is both shocking and infuriating, Al-Mansour never preaches or rails against her country, but simply shows, through a child’s eyes, the small realities of her world, and the ways that all those within it—especially the women, interestingly—perpetuate its values.
Humane, funny, and never obvious, the film has a light, poetic touch, and a major trump card in its lead actress, who gives a thoroughly charming, complex performance as a young girl trying to reconcile the incoming media messages from Western culture with the constraints of her own society. And while it ends on a sweet, hopeful note, the film earns its optimism through the triumph of its very own existence: a Saudi woman asserting her creative voice despite the odds, and forging the way for others to do the same.