Captain Liu Changjian has been likened to a Chinese Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, but his heroic piloting occurred on a flight to an occupied sovereign nation: Tibet. Tibetans have suffered plenty thanks to Chinese imperialism, so at least he managed to save those onboard his flight. Nevertheless, the “optics” are awkward for the Chinese propaganda baked into Andrew Lau’s The Captain, which opens this Friday in New York.
Of course, state censors do not want the public to lose confidence in Sichuan Airlines, so the first twenty-five minutes of The Captain are dedicated to documenting the seemingly endless pre-flight safety checks conducted by the crew. Unfortunately, they are about as dramatic to watch as they sound. We meet several of the passengers, but never in any depth. They range from the predictable, like the panicky Westerner, to the deeply problematic, like the veteran PLA officer, who is returning to pay tribute to his fallen occupying comrades, who died in an avalanche, in what could very well be a case of divine retribution.
The trickiest part of the flight from Chengdu to Llhasa is the stretch over the Tibetan Plateau, where it is impossible to decrease attitude to a safer level should the cabin become depressurized. Alas, that is exactly what happens when the cockpit windshield freakishly shatters. To make matters worse, their course will take them through the center of a massive storm. To save his crew and the passengers in their charge, Captain Liu will have to do some fancy flying.
The twenty minutes or so that depict the crisis itself are nicely done, but everything else that come before it and after it looks and sounds conspicuously like padding. Plus, the patriotic rah-rah ending clangs like a massively discordant note.
Zhang Hanyu has grizzled steeliness to spare, but he still looks like he is disinterestedly going through the motions as the titular Captain. By far, the most engaging work comes from Quan Yuan as Bi Nan, the “in-flight service manager.” (She is in-charge of the other flight attendants.) There are two other members of the flight crew and eight flight attendants, but they are all almost entirely indistinguishable from one another.