- Movie Rating -

The Captains (2011)

| December 12, 2011 | 0 Comments

I know exactly what I expected from William Shatner’s documentary The Captains, a retrospective journey in which the actor sits down with the five actors who have proceeded him in playing the various captains on the various Star Trek incarnations.  I expected a bouncy, kitschy, rather superfluous, romp through the mish-mash of the Star Trek phenomenon with Trek fans dressed in silly costumes and pointed ears – something along the lines of Trekkies, that bizarre 1997 documentary that probed the world to find that most devoted (and scary) of the Star Trek fanbase.  This was not to be.  The Captains is a funny, somber, oddly moving journey through the history, the passions, the fortunes, the misfortunes and the philosophy of a man you might expect to be the least qualified to be attached to any of those things. William Shatner’s public persona since leaving Star Trek seems to have been hell-bent on kidding himself. Here, for the most part, he’s not kidding.

Shatner has always been willing to kid his own image.  He’s a very funny guy with a wicked sense of humor and a career that few would be willing to delve into with any seriousness. Remember that infamous rendition of “Rocket Man” during the 1978 Science Fiction Awards? Remember his spoken word album? Remember Star Trek 5, the film that was simultaneously his debut as a feature film director AND his swan song? These are not the machinations of a serious actor, and that’s what makes The Captains such a strange experience, how willing he is to shed himself (mostly) of his outer protective jokiness and find a measure of meaning in his life. The outer purpose of The Captains is for Shatner to travel around and check in on the five actors – Sir Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula and Chris Pine – who have played the captains on the various incarnations of Star Trek. It is nice to see them all again, but Shatner doesn’t simply field questions about Star Trek, he embraces them as artists and as human beings. In that way, Star Trek is not the subject, but merely the connective tissue.

Sir Patrick Stewart is probably the most dramatic of the interviewees. He is the only non-American, besides Shatner, to play a captain. Born in England in the midst of World War II and raised with a deeply passionate love affair for the works of Shakespeare, which was thrust into his hands at the age of 12 when he was told to read the role of Shylock, and which he heard on radio through legends like John Gielgud and Alec Guinness. Stewart is the actor that Shatner connects with the best, as an actor who is also reaching a certain age (he’s 75) and tries to define himself as an actor beyond Star Trek. But, even still, he admits that if he were to die today Jean Luc Picard would be first on everyone’s lips and he’s okay with that.

Avery Brooks is somewhat odd. He was Captain Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and is now a tenured professor of theater at Rutgers University. We can see something of his dramatist in him as he speaks poetically about the craft of acting and more importantly the craft of life. Sometimes he seems like a wise old man and sometimes he seems as nutty as a butter-bean.

Kate Mulgrew is the most emotional. She was the first (and only) female captain, occupying the role of Katherine Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, and admits that she had to fight a battle early in life with her father to get to New York to be an actor. She is also the most open about the negative effects that being on Star Trek had on her life. Working 18 hour days, she suffered a divorce and the strain of being away from two small children. Mulgrew gives some insights into how is is difficult being at the center of a Star Trek series, having to hit your marks with remember multitudes of techno-babble in the midst of green screen technology that will be added later.

Scott Bakula is the only actor here who came ready-made for science fiction, having been an icon of the genre. He was Jonathan Archer of the prequel series “Star Trek: Enterprise”, and talks about coming from a background of music. He seems the most charming of the group.

Chris Pine, whom Shatner spends the least amount of time with, never-the-less has a role that is crucial. Unlike the other actors, Pine is at the cusp of a budding career. Barely into his 30s, he already has two successful roles with the 2010 Denzel Washington thriller Unstoppable, which Shatner admires and, of course, his role as the younger James T. Kirk in 2009’s reboot Star Trek. He is a nice kid with a handsome face and we sense that Shatner does see something of his younger self.

Through these interviews, what comes of The Captains is a philosophical journey into what it means to be so identified with a particular role, especially one as tongue and cheek as Star Trek.  Also, what it means in the public eye; What it means to the actor involved; What it does to their personal lives in relations with children and spouses (all but Pine have been through divorces).  Plus, all struggle with what it means to break away and be identified as an actor outside the role. The beauty of Shatner as an interviewer is that he manages to get his subjects to open up about these things by not “microphoning” them. His style is relaxed and lends itself to the other person’s personality. His manner is different with each subject, and we feel that this is the way he gets to the core of their nature. He isn’t looking for biographical or gossipy information. He doesn’t push, he listens and shares information.

As Shatner interviews his subjects, he keeps turning the focus back on himself. That’s not a criticism. We sense, as the film progresses that he is really looking for something. Here he is, an octogenarian (he’s 84) who is searching for a sense of purpose. He sees that the end of his life is drawing closer and, in a strange and very moving way, is attempting to deal with the mysteries of what awaits him on the other side. Where has he been? What does it all mean? What will he get to take with him? He asks Brooks very openly “What happens when you die?” and then the film slips quietly into a third-act that is a reflection on that very question.

These questions don’t come about through depressing melodrama, but through a simple curiosity. Shatner does a good job of creating his own philosophical biography on life, on death, on fame, and on living with the fact that his fame and his life will, ultimately, become an epitaph rested on just two words: Captain Kirk. The joy of the film is that it ponders important questions, while at the same time giving us an insight into a man that we might have otherwise written of as just a overdone parody of himself.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2011) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary