Two movies I saw today depict – in soul-searching, soul-scarring detail – how hard we all have to strive each and every day just to survive … each and every day.
At surface, you couldn’t find two men more different than Dallas Buyers Club‘s Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) or Captain Phillips‘ Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks).
Woodroof is a Texan man-whore homophobe, lazing through his day-job as an electrician, looking for any quick gambling buck he can find and seeking solace in the short-term highs of grungy drug use and even grungier sex. Phillips on the other hand is a solid New England family man with bedrock work ethic, patriarchal worry for his family’s long-term happiness, and a noble wariness toward his high-stakes job as a freighter ship captain in troubled waters.
However, both men are united – across decades and locations – through a shared quick-wittedness, scruffy bravery, and nerve-wracking battle with pirates … in Phillips’ case, quite literal pirates from Somalia and, in Woodroof’s case, big pharma and the FDA and the medical community writ large.
During the quietly effective opening scenes of Captain Phillips, establishing Phillips’ workaday love of his family, he tells his wife (the always excellent Catherine Keener) of his anxiety over what kind of future their children will have: “Big wheels are turnin’ … gotta be strong out there.” And this could be a theme for both films.
In Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof’s alpha male world of swagger is turned upside down when he receives an HIV+ diagnosis. This is the kind of man who think rodeos are a hoot, women are party favors, and Rock Hudson is a “big fairy.” (Remember, this is the go-go Reaganomic 80s.)
However, in the land of “movie logic,” this huckster cowboy is also a resourceful and opportunistic researcher (who knew McConaughey could make library microfiche use look so compelling?) with a burgeoning heart of gold and a begrudging respect for his gay fellow man, spurred by all the money to be made trafficking unapproved drugs across the Mexican border.
Jennifer Garner, doing that edgy earnestness that all actors of her generation gleaned from the “Julia Roberts School of Acting,” is okay as one of Woodroof’s doctors, though neither Garner nor her underwritten role ever really go anywhere.
McConaughey is quite capable in a tricky part (yet one might argue that his extreme weight loss for the film does all the work), but the movie doesn’t really start clicking until the arrival of Jared Leto’s “Rayon.” Leto does a yeoman’s job keeping his portrayal from sliding off the rails into cliche – the mutable, transgender pixie who keeps everyone safe and grounded with her Southern charm and earth mother care-taking.
Leto is a person first, whip-smart and sad but never maudlin and not once the demeaned comic relief. The dynamic between McConaughey and Leto is fun to watch and (spoiler alert!) only gets mawkish around Leto’s inevitable Camille-like death. This is not Leto’s fault – bad writing, clunky direction by Jean-Marc Vallee, and TV-movie sloppy editing mar the film’s denouement.
At one level, Dallas Buyers Club – like precursors Philadelphia or Longtime Companion – is the prototypical “HIV film,” leveraging the disease as a metaphor for the intolerance of a society that ostracizes the sick, the broken, and the unique. However, on another (and arguably fresher) level, the film is an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry’s tendency to pursue big money for treating symptoms over curing disease and of the doctors and government agencies that knowingly or unknowingly are complicit in throwing the infirm under the crushing wheels of “medical progress.”Captain Phillips, the much stronger film, depicts a world popping at the seams from the economic pressures placed on us all. Smartly, director Paul Greengrass, of United 93 and Matt Damon’s Bourne movies, opens the film with parallel sequences: Hanks’ Phillips gets “ready for work” as he heads to the airport with his wife and then meets with his crew to review their trip, and these scenes are juxtaposed alongside those of the Somali pirates preparing for their day of pillaging, debating among themselves their best course of action.
Greengrass seems to suggest – with lack of editorializing – a “job is a job” and circumstances have dictated very different lives for these souls. The tension comes from the audience’s knowledge that these different economic forces are bound to collide shortly.
The film moves efficiently toward the central conflict of “haves and have-nots” as the Somalis board Phillips’ ship in short order, and an ever-escalating game of cat and mouse ensues as Phillips does his darndest to stay in control, protect his crew, and contain the situation. The pirates, led by the justifiably praised Barkhad Abdi and the underrated Faysal Ahmed, are a frantic force, smashing and grabbing in a world that they perceive with vicious longing as rich with entitlement.
At one point, Abdi reflects on all he will be able to do when he is one day “in America.” The moment is simultaneously poignant and frightening in his perception of the joys of materialism and the horror he believes he has to inflict to achieve it.
Greengrass is the consummate director (where is his Oscar, dammit?) who makes MOVIES! in the truest sense of cinematic story-telling, and Captain Phillips is his best work to date (which is pretty remarkable, given how good his films always are). His latest effort does not bore for a second, ratcheting the stakes with a relentless clockwork solemnity.
The tension is real and it is shared – between captain, crew, antagonists, would-be rescuers, and audience – not because of some lethargic “based on real events” filmmaking, but through the old school charms of well-developed characters, crackerjack pace, precise edits, compelling score, intelligent script, and exceptional acting.
This is the strongest performance of Hanks’ storied career (which is somewhat bittersweet as he isn’t nominated this year for an Oscar, though McConaughey is and will likely win). If you aren’t yelping in fear and heartbreak and hope in his climactic moments, then you must have been watching a different movie than I. “I’m sorry I’m not there with you,” he exclaims to the heavens and one presumes to his family … and we as audience members, separated by the fourth wall of film, must say the same to Phillips in return. His emotional release when the ordeal finally ends is as cathartic as anything I’ve seen in years.
Captain Phillips is a film for the ages; Dallas Buyers Club is a film for the moment. Both are worthwhile, but, combined, they unforgettably depict the harrowing lengths to which any of us will go to survive.