Director Paul Greengrass knows how to capture people in crisis (a recurring theme this year), and he's at his best with "Captain Phillips," the fact-based hostage drama about Somalian piracy on the high-seas that's a likely Oscar contender for best picture.
It's not only a matter of getting a sense of realism and immediacy with his hand-held camera and hyper-kinetic cutting. It's also about attaining the authenticity of performance, with Tom Hanks at his most powerful in more than a decade opposite a brilliant debut by Barkhad Abdi as his Somalian kidnapper.
"What moments of crisis do is create a kind of ballet, that tension building up of movement and counter movement," Greengrass told me at a recent press conference. "And it tells you something about the world when you see it building in that way. But you have to capture that ratcheting up as accurately as you can, and if you can do it, I think you can get something underneath that, which is common humanity, compassion, and wisdom without sentimentalizing the brutal truth of what's occurring."
Thus, it wasn't enough to merely tell the harrowing ordeal of merchant mariner Richard Phillips, whose American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked in 2009 on the Indian Ocean by Samali pirates and how he was taken hostage in a lifeboat until rescued by the U.S. Navy. Greengrass wanted to tell a larger story of a world in economic crisis through the clash of the have and the have nots.
This is dramatically set up at the outset when Phillips anxiously tells his wife (played by Catherine Keener) during the car ride to the airport how worried he is about their two children coping with a changing world that will be unrecognizable to their generation.
"One of the interesting things is that it was a story about people caught in a situation, none of whom wanted it to end badly," Greengrass continued. "Even the pirates, although they were willing to use violence, in the end, what they wanted was the money. The biggest creative challenge from my point of view was how do you get that compression and stay truthful to the fundamentals of what happened? We did a lot of work to make sure that we understood exactly what had happened on the Navy side, and who these young men were and where they came from and the clan structure of the piracy."
And, according to their research, Somali piracy grew in response to foreign over-fishing, compelling former fishermen to hijack ships and hold them ransom for money. Meanwhile, powerful warlords turned the piracy into global organized crime. But since the incident with Phillips and the Maersk Alabama, the hiring of armed guards and other precautions have significantly curtailed Somali piracy.
For Hanks, Greengrass' semi-documentary approach of "finding the moment" was an arduous and claustrophobic departure. But the two-time Oscar winner admitted that it was the best one to serve the demands of this movie. To enhance the performances, the director went so far as to separate Hanks and his fellow actors playing the crew from the four actors portraying the pirates (all played by newcomers discovered by Greengrass in Minneapolis).
"The only difference was that this is their first movie as opposed to their 17th. Learning from that, I think, is that there is no substitute for accurate behavior, there's no substitute for true reacting," Hanks suggested.
Greengrass added: "You're making a strong bet on the ability of four young men who had never acted before, but I believed in them and I believed in what authenticity they could bring to the film as young Somalis with a knowledge of the country and the people. So when it came to that moment, it was a little bit like pro sport. And in a way, I think it helped Tom, too, because he didn't know them and they didn't know him, so there was a sort of intimacy there. They were antagonists at that moment and that you could really tell on screen."
But the most memorable moment for Hanks' Captain Phillips was improvised aboard the USS Truxton, where they were shooting. "We didn't even know we were going to shoot that scene," Hanks recalled. "It wasn't in the script. We checked out the infirmary. And the actual crew had no idea they were going to be in a movie that day. We decided to try and get something...and so we shot it.
"It fell apart once because of natural things that happen in the course of making movies. We just said, 'Don't worry, we'll just do it again'. We shot it for about half an hour...and out it came. I think it's a testament to Paul's willingness to go off the page and off the beaten path and off the plan and off the schedule, and shoot in a location that we hadn't scouted. But it all made sense in the environment of the entire movie that we made."
"Actually, while Tom was getting ready for that scene," Greengrass added, "I said to [the medic], 'Look, just treat it like a regular military exercise -- it'll be absolutely nothing, just entirely routine, just that it'll be Tom Hanks.'"
Only the emotion is so raw, so vulnerable, that you forget you're watching Hanks, the movie star, and instead are watching Captain Phillips facing his own worst fear -- a state of total disorientation.