Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks just isn't an actor we like to see in distress - he's not Mel Gibson

Paul Greengrass's new thriller pits two excellent leading men (a debut actor, Barkhad Abdi, and a veteran, Tom Hanks) against one another - authentic performances which survive the film's mannered direction.

Captain Phillips (12A)
dir: Paul Greengrass

At the start of Captain Phillips, which is based on real events from 2009, a pair of hardworking and dedicated men of the sea set off for another ordinary day at work, thousands of miles apart. One is Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks), who wears a frosted beard on his stony face. He peers at his schedule: he will be guiding the crew and cargo of the Maersk Alabama through hazardous waters to Mombasa. There is no course he can take that will avoid the threat of piracy entirely. His wife (Catherine Keener) accompanies him on his drive to the docks. They chit-chat about their children, but there’s a stilted quality to their conversation – it’s the way people talk when they’re trying not to mention what’s niggling them.

The other man preparing for work is Muse (Barkhad Abdi). A ragtag crew is being assembled at dawn on the Somali coast for a campaign against any of the large vessels attempting to cross the waters off the Horn of Africa. “When you get a big ship,” he is told, “you get paid.” He has heavy-lidded eyes and a slack jaw from a mouth overcrowded with protuberant teeth, but his dazed appearance belies his determination. The film establishes his parity with Phillips early on, cross-cutting between these two men going about their daily duties – Muse repairing the conked-out engine on his rinkydink speedboat while Phillips puts his crew through a piracy drill.

The tasks don’t always tally. Where Phillips chides his crew for extending their coffee break, Muse establishes his supremacy by clonking a rival on the nut with a wrench. Still, the point is well made, and characteristic of the director Paul Greengrass, best known for the middle two of the four Bourne thrillers. In United 93, his democratic approach even extended to showing how jittery the 9/11 hijackers must have been.

By the time Muse and his cohorts are closing in, the shortfall in scale between the vessels no longer registers. Phillips and his men have flares and water cannon to repel invaders. Their opponents have guns and the more pressing economic imperative. On the Somalis’ makeshift radar, Phillips’s ship is a puny green dot no harder to consume than a Pac-Man pellet.

Once the pirates have boarded, the visual repertoire switches from giddy seascapes to charged and sweaty close-ups. Eyeball to eyeball with Phillips on the bridge of the ship, Muse purrs: “It’s just business.” Counting out the money from the safe, he mutters through the side of his mouth: “Taxes.” Not that he will content himself with loose change. Having discovered that they’ve taken an American ship, the pirates whoop ecstatically. All they have to do is sit tight and wait for the insurance man to pitch up with a briefcase of cash. People in Somalia must not have seen very many heist movies.

Greengrass is less beholden to convention than most directors but there is still an action movie vocabulary (the rumbling, bass-heavy score imitating a heartbeat, the repeated cutaways to military manoeuvres on dry land) that he could train himself to do without. The ideal to aspire to here is Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst, where, for a large chunk of the movie, we are as much in the dark as the title character. And while it’s commendably frugal to limit our glimpses of Phillips’s wife to one scene at the start of the film, that restraint could have been extended to the rest of the story. I’d rather join the US navy Seals than see any more shots of them screeching across the tarmac in Humvees, boarding a plane, jumping from their plane, bobbing around in the sea, readying their sniper rifles. We know they’re out there. Let’s take that stuff as read.

The core of the drama lies in the exchanges between Phillips and Muse, though even there the script often lets them down. The screenwriter Billy Ray displays a special fondness for portentous repetition. Asked by Phillips whether there isn’t some way of making a living other than fishing or piracy, Muse responds: “Maybe in America there is.” Pause. “Maybe in America.” At a moment of high drama, Phillips assures his captor: “You’re not just a fisherman! You’re not just a fisherman!” We hear you, we hear you.

There is still an authenticity to the performances that mannered writing cannot undo. This is Abdi’s first film, but if his nerves were frazzled during shooting he parlayed that anxiety into the performance; at special moments of tension, he appears to be sizzling exuberantly like a firework. Greengrass occasionally likes to shoot Hanks from below in the manner of a Mount Rushmore sculpture, but Hanks has earned it. He spends most of the film silent and composed, which makes it all the more upsetting when he begins to suffer visibly. He’s simply not one of those actors whom we are happy to see subjected to violence or extreme distress. He’s not Mel Gibson, for heaven’s sake.

Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi (the ones in the lifeboat) negotiate with the US Navy in Captain Phillips. Image: Sony Pictures.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era