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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How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters.

With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry. Yet as migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.