The film follows Rich Phillips (played by Hanks), the real-life U.S. container ship captain who's carrying out a mission to transport food and supplies from Oman to Mombasa on the Maersk Alabama. During the journey, Phillips and a group of some 25 crew members are taken hostage by four desperate and dangerous Somali pirates. In an attempt to save the lives of his crew, Phillips deals himself into a trade, and is left in the midst of a days-long standoff against his captors (on a lifeboat, no less) while a team of Navy SEALs attempts rescue after rescue.
As director Paul Greengrass explained during a special screening at the New York Film Festival, at the heart of this movie is a character study. Phillips and his head captor, Muse, constantly face off in desperate attempts to save their own respective lives. "When I remember this film in the years to come," he said. "I'll think about these two men, head-to-head in this intense psychological study at the heart of this film."
In order to bring a relative level of sensitivity to a blow-out action flick, Greengrass and his team decided to use first-time actors to play the pirates, a move that added vulnerability to four otherwise terrifying roles. "There was a great challenge with this film," said Greengrass. "How do you present young men who are intent on violence and mayhem, kidnap and piracy, how do you present that in a way that's truthful? In other words, you are clear about its moral essence, which is dark and dangerous, yet you find the humanity of that."
Hanks was particularly impressed with co-star Barkhad Abdi's non-Hollywood approach to filming the hostage scenes. "Barkhad was filming on that skiff for an awful long time," he said at the screening. "People will ask him, 'Hey, how did you manage that, shooting those scenes in the middle of the ocean on that speedboat?' And he'll say, 'Well, they put us on a speedboat in the middle of the ocean.'"
While we found ourselves white-knuckled and short of breath for much of the flick (we'll also cop to giving out more than our fair share of gasps), it seems the same afflictions hit the cast and crew. After the initial standoff between the pirates and the Alabama crew (tense in and of itself, as the unarmed boat attempts to keep the attackers at bay with sharp turns and water hoses), screen time is mostly dedicated to the standoff in the lifeboat. Phillips and his captors grow more and more agitated as the mounting resistance from the nearby Navy SEALs grows violent. "It wasn't as easy as it looks in the movie," said Abdi. "I didn't even know how to swim [when we started filming]. And, you know, that lifeboat, it doesn't smell that good." Tom agreed, chiming in: "There was one day where we were getting shots on the actual water, in Malta, and everybody who was not an actor in the lifeboat ended up vomiting. First, the focus puller disappeared, and then the sound mixer made a rush to it. Luckily, we [the actors] got to just sit down and close our eyes, but those guys actually had to work. It's terrible."
As intense as Captain Phillips is for its 130-minute run, the prep work for the film was even more in-depth. Onscreen, it's easy to forget that Phillips was just a regular guy who went through a true tragedy. His personal experience lacked the witty dialogue and sweeping shots of incoming fighter jets (not to mention the knowledge that the entire country was dedicated to bringing him home alive) that are the blockbuster's claim to fame. As such, preparing to portray the real-life hero was something that Hanks didn't take lightly. "I did spend a lot of time with Captain Phillips," he said. "I read his book prior to reading the screenplay, and I did get together with him on two occasions. And, you know, you don't want to be an idiot and ask, 'What were you feeling? What was it like? Are you a hero?' You don't ask questions like most journalists do, when the time comes."
Hanks explained to Phillips that although, as an actor, he would be saying things Phillips never said, or end up in places Phillips never was, they could still make sure to do his tale justice. And, luckily, things clicked into place, giving Hanks the motivation to perfectly channel the real-life hero. "I asked Andrea [Phillips' wife] if she ever visited Rich on the ships, and she said she used to, but it's no fun because Rich is a completely different human being when he's on the job. He's very easygoing and almost happy-go-lucky, but onboard the ship it is just always serious work that he as the captain has to do. And that was the final tumbler for me — I just felt after that that I knew what to do every time Paul [Greengrass] presented something on set."
After an action-packed two hours, the true beauty of Captain Phillips lies in its final five minutes. Hanks has already received Oscar buzz, mostly due to this end scene. "That was a moment like I've never had making films," said Hanks. "It's not on the page at all, it was not meant to be the last scene in the film. But, just the freedom to give it a shot was so liberating, and that really made it."
For a movie whose ending is a dead giveaway from the very start (it is, after all, a true story), Captain Phillips still knows how to shock and awe like the best of 'em. Hanks' performance will elicit tears in a way that hasn't been done since that tragic goodbye to Wilson all those years ago. And, it's in this ending that the heart of Captain Phillips the movie — and Captain Phillips the man — truly lives.