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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Here I Am marks a departure from Jonathan Safran Foer's usual style

Safran Foer is as known for his character as for his works. What a shame, when Here I Am is such a mature, multilayered novel.

Why is it that some novelists attract a certain kind of fame? They are marked out from the crowd as representative of something (it hardly matters what that something is) and examined and analysed and discussed. Generally, writers make poor fodder for gossip columns, but, on occasion, that is where they find themselves, and it can be all too easy to forget why we cared about them in the first place.

Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those writers. Since his debut, Everything Is Illuminated, published 14 years ago when he was 25, his person has been as much an object of  scrutiny as his books. Which is a shame, as the books are remarkable in their own right. They haven’t always succeeded completely (his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is sabotaged by its mannered intellectual fireworks), but then very good novelists need to fail if, finally, they are to become great novelists. In 2010, through the London-based Visual Editions, Foer (who has a fascination with the collage artist Joseph Cornell) published Tree of Codes, a wonderful book that cut out pieces of text from Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create both a new text and a work of art. He has ranged beyond fiction, too, producing Eating Animals – about how we decide what we eat and the moral underpinnings of those choices – and, with Nathan Englander, a New American Haggadah. Here I Am, his first novel in 11 years, may not be the work that converts the sceptics, but it is terrific.

Its opening might lead the reader to believe that Foer is setting off on the path of dystopian fiction: but that’s not the way this story goes. “When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home.” Perhaps it’s not quite as eye-popping as Anthony Burgess’s opener to Earthly Powers – “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me” – but it is arresting nonetheless. And while the political landscape of the Middle East has a role to play, that is not the true focus of Here I Am. Instead, Foer shifts quickly to Isaac Bloch’s grandson Jacob, who is a writer, and his wife, Julia, an architect. It is the distillation and dissolution of their marriage, the way they think about it, the effect this has on their three sons, Sam, Max and Benjy, which are the heart of the book.

As for the destruction of Israel, Foer gets to that about halfway through this long narrative. The über-manly Tamir, a cousin of Jacob’s, lives there but comes to visit Jacob and his family in the United States. While he is staying, a huge earthquake strikes Israel; the destruction caused by the quake provokes war in the Middle East. Watching the horror on television, Tamir says to Jacob: “You need to come home.” But Jacob thinks he is home – in Washington, where he lives. To Tamir, “home” for Jews, however secular, must always be Israel. The war forces Jacob to test this proposition against his personal beliefs.

Foer juxtaposes news bulletins of start­ling drama – as when “Israel declares war ‘against all of those seeking to destroy the Jewish state’” – with Jacob’s navel-gazing anxiety over the role he ought to play in that war. Jacob insists to Tamir that the earthquake is a geological, not a political catastrophe. “Nothing is not political,” Tamir replies, quite correctly. Jacob’s solipsism is annoying, but surely that’s the point. His quest is to understand where he belongs – in what family, in which set of people – and whether any of those ideas has any meaning in the abstract, or whether it is only the details of each individual relationship which finally make up a life.

In his previous novels, Foer poured his energy into language, his characters serving his powers of creation rather than the other way round. This time Foer – coming up to 40, a father-of-two, now separated from his own wife – has shifted his focus to a hyperreal observation of the minutiae of family life which is truthful and often heartbreaking. The pleasure of Here I Am lies in being allowed to see what is usually invisible, the tiny moments of life that go unremarked upon because they are unremarkable. At Jacob and Julia’s wedding, Jacob’s mother had wished for the couple to know each other “in sickness and in sickness”. Life is not spectacular; there is only wonder in the ordinary. “Don’t seek or expect miracles,” she told them. “There are no miracles. Not anymore. And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other’s pain, and being present for it.”

Foer expresses that presence by demonstrating that the smallest moments have significance, if the person experiencing that moment is truly present. Along the way, he builds something that is both structurally bold and emotionally complex – and often extremely funny (Sam’s discovery of masturbation leaves Portnoy in the dust).

“Here I am,” says Abraham to God before God asks for the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. “I’m ready,” says Jacob at the very end of this mature novel: simple words to express a multilayered and satisfying journey. 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood