Hostage Crises: <i>Captain Phillips</i> and <i>Alan Partridge</i> at the New York Film Festival

10/03/2013 9:30 AM |

Captain Phillips Tom Hanks Paul Greengrass movie

Captain Phillips opens with two men getting ready for work, both reluctantly: Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) prepares for another offshore mission in charge of a cargo ship while Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is casually coerced into boarding a Somali pirate ship. The parallel preparations are interesting, if simple; neither man is particularly excited to head seaward, and that’s about as far and deep as the movie’s sociology goes. It’s another gripping real-life thriller from Paul Greengrass where there’s a little less going on than meets the eye.

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The movie does vary a little from the formula. First, Greengrass doesn’t cut at the same propulsive but assaultive pace as he did in movies like Green Zone or his Bourne sequels. Most of the shots are still handheld, but far less queasy than you might expect from Greengrass at sea. Most vitally, Hanks plays an actual everyman as opposed to the sleek everyman simulation run by Matt Damon. (No knock against Damon, but a single Bourne picture left little doubt about his action-hero abilities.) The most fascinating aspect of the movie is Hank’s portrayal of the craftiness simmering below Phillips’ plainspoken friendliness; almost everything he does in the movie he does under the guise of cooperation.

In the movie’s first half or so, the cat-mouse stuff between the ship’s crew and the pirates reps a nice break from Greengrass’s much-loved control-room boilerplate: more intimate and tense. But after a certain point, it’s back to business as usual. At the press conference that followed the press screening, Greengrass and Hanks, both smart and charming, spoke of Greengrass’s favored “combination of procedure and behavior.” But Greengrass movies always strike me as procedure-light: handheld shots of guys in command centers speaking somewhat less idiotically than they do in their higher-octane summer-movie equivalents. Still, Hanks and Abdi bring plenty of human interest to the behavior side.

Strangely, Steve Coogan’s long-awaited-by-a-certain-slim-segment-of-the-populace Alan Partridge movie (subtitle: Alpha Papa) is also a hostage picture, albeit a far sillier one; it actually calls to mind the 1994 comedy Airheads, but its comedy-nerd fans shouldn’t despair at the comparison. I was mostly unfamiliar with Coogan’s signature character, a radio presenter turned TV presenter turned, in his feature debut, radio presenter again, presiding over an inane chat-and-music program at a local station. When the station is acquired by corporate overlords, Partridge’s fellow DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meany) gets sacked, and he returns to the station armed and ready for vengeance. Partridge is improbably sent in to defuse the situation; eventually, he realizes the opportunities for fame built into “hosting a siege,” as he puts it. The movie is basically about a monstrous ego awakening from within a dorky, genial radio host, giving Coogan plenty of room to drolly portray a small-time grasper. The filmmakers spoofs both empty-headed radio chatter and the corporate culture that standardizes it. But mostly, it’s a vehicle for semi-absurd and almost wholly delightful silliness. Even without the 20 years of comedy history leading up to it, it’s very funny. Hopefully its relative obscurity won’t keep it from a proper US release.

Alan Partridge screens again October 7. Captain Phillips opens October 11.