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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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