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

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.