Monthly Archives: October 2013

Captain Phillips

The final fifteen minutes of Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips are among the most intense I have seen in any movie in years (particularly the final scene). Certainly, the whole 134 minutes—though it feels like 90 minutes or less—is intense. But its climax and catharsis are breathtaking. It left me feeling shaken, inspired, grieved, and shell shocked, with a distinct sense of “what just happened?!”

And that’s an all-too-rare feeling in movies today.

I felt the same way seven years ago when I sat in a theater watching another film by Paul Greengrass that ended with a breathless bang and a similar, albeit more tragic, climactic catharsis:United 93. That film, one of the decade’s best, left me so shaken I could hardly move from my seat when the credits began to roll.

The final moments of Captain Phillips include a career-best acting moment from Tom Hanks, but its final scene also reminded me of what Paul Schrader, in Transcendental Style in Film, calls stasis: the moment at the end of the film (usually the last shot) when the “abundant,” loud, and chaotic give way to “sparse,” quiet, and contemplative finality. To put it another way: Captain Phillips is hardly Ozu in form or in content. But the way it ends certainly leads the viewer to place of stasis that reminds one of the Japanese director’s work: “a frozen view of life,” notes Schrader, “which does not resolve the disparity but transcends it.”

The amazing thing is that Captain Phillips, like United 93, is based on a true story that most of the audience knows. That a story with a known ending can be so gripping—even sublime—is a testament both to the filmmakers’ talents and film’s inherent power to narrate real stories more viscerally than the newspaper or a Wikipedia page.

[Read the rest of my review for Christianity Today here.]

Four Ways Christians Approach Film

Jack Hafer has been a Christian working in the film industry since the 1980s (you may have seen his 2003 film To End All Wars). He’s also the current chair of the film department at Biola University, an evangelical college with an impressive track record for producing graduates who find success in Hollywood. For my book Gray Matters I asked Hafer to categorize different approaches Christians have taken to film & filmmaking, and he described three. Below I’ve summarized his three approaches, plus a fourth that I have personally observed.

Which do you most resonate with?

1) Message-centric: Some Christians are only interested in films insofar as they explicitly preach the gospel or relay an unmistakably biblical message. This approach typically downplays aesthetics in favor of unmissable morals, preferring didactic direct-ness to subtlety. Good films are evangelistic films. Examples: Thief in the Night; Fireproof.

2) For the common good: This approach doesn’t focus on evangelism as much as whether or not a film has overall positive values for the common good. “In Hollywood it’s easy to make temptation look enticing, but challenging to make goodness look attractive,” notes Hafer, but “that’s a challenge this approach takes on.” These are films not made for the church but for wide audiences, espousing broad but generally Judeo-Christian values, where good triumphs over evil. Examples: Indiana Jones, The Blind Side.

3) Religious in content: This approach favors films that feature religious elements or plotlines: movies about Christians, preachers, nuns, monks, Joan of Arc, etc. This approach sees value in films that make religious sentiments look attractive, or create a sense of awe, longing, and wonder about the transcendent. These films need not be preachy, but often compellingly portray stories of faith. Examples: The Way, The Diary of a Country Priest.

4) Aesthetically transcendent: In this approach, “sacred” films are those
which — through style, exceptional artistry or powerful narrative — evoke feelings of transcendental longing akin to what Germans call sehnsucht. They are films so beautiful and evocative that the viewer is brought to a place of sublime stasis or spiritual contemplation. Christians who favor this approach are less interested in specifically Christian messages or plotlines than they are with true, powerful portrayals of beauty and longing. Examples: Tokyo Story, The Tree of Life.


Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is an awe-inspiring experience. With its never-seen-anything-like-this-before cinematography, its heart-pumping tension and its uncanny ability to convey the feeling of actually being in space, Gravity achieves something all too rare in cinema today: it utterly transports the audience. It draws us in so thoroughly (especially with the aid of 3D and IMAX screens) that for 90 minutes one truly does feel like they are floating and tumbling around in space. It’s dizzying, intense, and wonderful.

The power of art that immerses the viewer so thoroughly in its world is that it forces a posture of contemplation. In the moments when we’re not clutching our seats with white knuckles in Gravity, we are gazing at earth from a vantage point we’ve never seen: far enough to see its globe curvature but close enough to make out the Nile, the Sinai, the Ganges. In this liminal space between earth and the vast nothingness beyond, eerily quiet and reverse-claustrophobic, one has a hard time escaping existential reflection.

My own reflections as I watched Gravity centered on the dual notions of human capacity and limitation. The film’s jaw-dropping artistry (its 17-minute single take opening should itself win an Academy Award) and “how’d they do that?” technological wizardry testify to the former. So do the mechanics of human space travel: the shuttles, space stations, satellites and suits that humans concocted so that they could explore the harsh, unlivable environs of the final frontier. Five decades after the first humans traveled to space, it’s still mind-boggling to imagine that it’s possible (and that we have the minds to come up with stuff like this). Finally, the ingenuity and survival skills of the film’s heroine (Sandra Bullock) showcase not only humanity’s capacity to dream but also its capacity to improvise and adapt in the face of extinction.

And yet Gravity is also very much a film about limitations. From its foreboding opening text about how nothing can survive in space, through its 90 minutes of harrowing death and near-death, Gravity is on one level a cautionary tale about the limits of human power in the fact of the far-more-powerful forces of the natural world.

Sure, space opens up some capacities that we don’t have on earth. Zero gravity means that in space we can fly. We can’t do that on earth. And yet “life in space” (oxymoron?) introduces new limitations, all exploited to dramatic effect in Gravity: wild temperature fluctuations, no oxygen, debris/shrapnel flying at you at the speed of a bullet, etc. Humans, however brilliant they may be, are tiny, vulnerable blips on the radar of the universe. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki underscores this with stunning shots of tiny white dots (NASA astronauts) against the vast black nothing of space.

The film’s existential posture reflects a sobering sense of man’s smallness and vulnerability. At the end of the day, man’s ability to control his fate and ensure his safety is limited. At any moment a random accident can kill any of us off, whether on earth (as happens to Bullock’s daughter) or in space (the ill fated NASA crew in Gravity). And while earth is certainly a more conducive environment for life (human or otherwise), it is by no means an easy world to survive. The harshness of terra firma–where the indifference of a hostile planet and its various deathtraps (weather, terrain, etc.) is just part of the challenge for humans–reminds us in the film’s final moments that humans are vulnerable even on our home planet.

What, then, is it that helps humans survive? If the odds are so stacked against our survival, with even the environments of our home planet pushing the limits of our biological and existential resilience, how do any of us survive?

Perhaps it is grace. Perhaps it is a benevolent force from above the heavens that gives us a chance at survival. It’s either that or blind randomness; pure luck. Are we on our own in a thoroughly random universe, or is there a God who stands supreme over it all? Gravity forces us to contemplate this question, and the way we interpret the film’s final line (“thank you”) likely reflects how we would answer that question.