I’m going to tell you about the last scene of Captain Phillips, the extraordinary new docudrama from director Paul Greengrass that opens the New York Film Festival, and I need you to trust me that I’m not “spoiling” anything. Aside from the fact that the film is based on a true story (so its outcome isn’t exactly a mystery), a mere description of the scene can’t hope to encapsulate what makes it so powerful. But talking about it goes a long way towards explaining what makes this film so special. Here’s what happens: Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) goes to the infirmary. He has been through a tremendous ordeal. And in the process of that examination, he lets himself feel what has happened.
“It was a moment like I’ve never had making films,” Hanks said at the press conference following Friday’s press screening, explaining that the film wasn’t even supposed to end that way. “We had a scene that was sort of like what happened there. And it was OK, it kinda worked fine.” But they were ahead of schedule, so director Greengrass asked one of the advisers, who had been on the ship during these events, what actually happened at that point, and that’s how the infirmary scene was born. “It was not part of it, it was not on the schedule, it hadn’t been lit,” Hanks said, but they blocked it out, put up some lights, and shot it.
In the film, the scene is striking not just for its raw, cathartic power (more on that later), but because it’s exactly the kind of scene that you don’t normally see in this kind of story, fictional or otherwise — an acknowledgment of the humanity of those who weather such an experience. But what is extraordinary about it from a filmmaking perspective, Hanks continued, “is Paul’s willingness to see that as a possibility. ‘Well, let’s shoot it. You were here, let’s give it a shot.’ There’s a lot of motion pictures in which you don’t have room in the schedule to do that. Nor do you have the sensibility to try it and see what’s cooking.”
But that off-the-cuff spirit is what makes Greengrass such a potent filmmaker, whether crafting a mainstream entertainment like the second and third Bourne films, or his previous works of documentary/narrative hybrid, Bloody Sunday and United 93. The film is shot with his customary handheld, you-are-there immediacy, telling the true story of the 2009 taking of the Maesrk Alabama by Somali pirates, who took Captain Phillips hostage in a tiny lifeboat. Because we know what will happen, there are tip lines, like the warning that they’ll be “on our own down the Somali Basin,” and fake-outs, like the first, unsuccessful hijacking attempt that makes it seem, for a moment, that they might not make it happen.
But such dramatic flourishes are the exception rather than the rule. Captain Phillips gets right down to business, with early safety drills interrupted by the dire admonishment that “this is real world,” launching the scary and involving hijacking sequence which puts the viewer’s stomach in knots (where it pretty much stays for two hours). Greengrass uses jargon and non-actors to convey a sense of realism and authenticity, but the gripping close-ups and vivid music by Henry Jackman are the tools of first-class suspense craftsmanship. The film is almost unbearably tense, with real-time sequences that are merciless in their intensity.
Yet as well as it works on that level, and as high as the stakes are, it is ultimately a film about two men. Phillips’s antagonist, the leader of the four-man band of pirates, is Muse, played by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi in a scary and convincing performance. “Look at me,” he commands, as they take over the bridge. “Look at me. I’m the captain now.” For all of the hardware and artillery involved, it’s ultimately a psychological battle between two men thrown together by heightened and terrifying circumstances, both acutely aware of the geographical and cultural divide that has placed them on either side of Muse’s machine gun. “There’s gotta be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people,” Phillips proposes. “Maybe in America,” Muse replies. They both know how they got there, and whether Muse admits it or not, he knows hot it’s going to turn out.
Which brings us back to Hanks. This is a performance that sneaks up on you; it appears at first to be one of his standard Everyman turns, perhaps even less than that, as it involves a Northeastern accent that is, initially at least, a little on the dodgy side. (Is there any dialect that’s more jarring to hear from a non-native?) Greengrass’ procedural, no-nonsense style means it’s not a film of big Acting Moments, though there’s something indescribable about the look in Hanks’s eyes as he watches, helplessly, while the ladder attaches and these men board his ship.
But in those closing scenes, we see the accumulation of this performance, and what it has been working towards — a symphony of overwhelming emotion and total surrender to the character. Of those sequences, Greengrass said, “Acting is many things. Acting is playing lines of course. But it’s much more profound than that. Acting is truth-telling. And trying to find the truth in a human situation.” That’s the key to that extraordinary sequence — the way in which this remarkable actor lets down his guard to convey that truth and humanity. “What that is,” Greengrass explains, “and you see it with great actors, which Tom obviously is one… Where you see a door, there’s just a tiny gap, the door is there, and it takes courage to walk through and find the truth. And that’s what he’s doing in that scene.” It seems strange to say that an actor as awarded and acclaimed as Tom Hanks is still capable of surprising us. But he does in Captain Phillips, which is one of the best films of the year.
Captain Phillips opens the New York Film Festival tonight. It opens October 11 in wide release.