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Captain, The (2019)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/22/19 22:28:28

"A heck of a story told quite well indeed."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

As near as I can tell, "The Captain" (aka "The Chinese Pilot") has been the most popular of the three big releases meant to stoke national pride for the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, which is nice, because it is also the one that feels the least like obvious propaganda. Instead, it's the sort of solid tale of heroic competence that risks understating the extent to which its hero showed grace under pressure - or, in this case, incredibly low air pressure.

It dramatizes events of 14 May 2018, a day which started early for pilot Liu Changjian (Zhang Hanyu), getting up at 3am, promising his sleeping daughter that he'll be back for her sixth birthday party, giving eye drops to the rescue puppy that will be her present, and then heading to Chongqing's airport for a 6:30am flight to Lhasa. He will be joined in the cockpit by cocky co-pilot Xu Yichen (Ou Hao) and inveterate flirt Liang Dong (Du Jiang), with purser Bi Nan (Yuan Quan) overseeing a team of four young, single, and pretty flight attendants. At 7:12am, over the Tibetan plateau at 9400m above sea level, a crack appears in the windshield, and in almost no time after that, it has blown out, depressurizing the cockpit. Above 3000m, it is difficult to breathe without assistance, and the plateau is 4500m high, and on top of that, a storm has formed which will make it difficult to divert toward what would normally be the most convenient airport.

The very basic synopsis of this movie might get one to joke that it's the Chinese remake of Sully, but truth be told, it's set up to be a better movie than that from the start - what happened with Flight 3U8633, at least as is presented in Yu Yonggan's script, took place over more than the course of a couple minutes and therefore doesn't need nearly as much to pad it out to feature length the way the American film more or less manufactured a contentious investigation as a framing device. In fact, it is impressive how director Andrew Lau Wai-Keung (likely best known outside China for co-directing and shooting the Infernal Affairs movies and not to be confused with their co-star Andy Lau) and writer Yu Yonggan nip any excess melodrama in the bud. The audience is introduced to the crew and given a peek at what's going on with them, as well as a cross-section of the 119 passengers - it will not surprise you that there's a jerk in first class, a couple meeting cute, a couple scared kids and a few even more frightened adults, and a man returning his brother's ashes, and a sensible veteran - only to have them more or less serve as background color. Though it's an easy trap to fall into, Lau and Yu never make the personal affairs of any passenger bigger or more important than the potential disaster they are part of. Even a moment when Liu's thoughts turn to his daughter feels like a man dealing with more stress than he has oxygen to handle.

That alone would probably make for a movie that doesn't quite feel blockbuster-scale, so the filmmakers do load it up a bit with aviation enthusiast material - not just a couple of scenes of a teenage aviation enthusiast following the situation that could easily be dropped if she weren't so immediately likable, but maybe a little more showing off how China's aviation infrastructure is massive but operates smoothly, with shots of slick, spacious control centers and reminders of how much effort goes into making air travel safe and efficient (between this and The Climbers, I wonder if meteorology has recently become a point of pride in China). It's pleasant enough, especially for audience members like myself who like airplanes and just watching people who are good at their jobs, although when the film is cutting between four different airports and air traffic control centers, including one that is military, it is a bit of overloaded detail.

In the middle of all that, the centerpiece is fairly spectacular. The shift from an unremarkable flight to a dangerous situation is exceptionally paced and merits a jaw drop even when one knows what's happening coming in. Lau and his crew - the editing team in particular - do a fine job of keeping tabs on everyone without losing track of the central action being in the cockpit, even though there's often not a lot going on that the audience can see other than Liu being very determined as he grasps the controls. What's going on outside the plane is nicely-rendered as well - though probably made more dramatic for the film, that doesn't mean the combination of the plane, the mountains, and the clouds doesn't work, and the climactic flight through the storm is very nice indeed. It probably looks awfully impressive in 3D on the premium screens in China, although it's a nice presentation on a standard screen as well.

Zhang Hanyu is good as Liu, although it's kind of a starring role by default, as the film focuses on what happens and gives Liu a little extra time because he was the guy at the center, though the rest of the ensemble is very solid. They're all good enough to make the film run smoothly without upstaging events, and that's more or less what this movie needs. It does what it's aiming for without fanfare, but that's part of why it works.

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