| || ||CAPTAIN PHILLIPS |
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Max Martini, Catherine Keener
Best for... humanising both sides in an impossible true story.
Paul Greengrass is back, and thank goodness for that. The true-life tale of Captain Phillips (Hanks), abducted and held hostage by Somali pirates after an attempt to rob his ship goes wrong, is a masterclass in cranking the tension and keeping it high – even if you know how it all ends. The unknowns cast as the pirates, in particular Barkhad Abdi as Musa, are flawless as the powers ranged against them line up, and Hanks is as good as ever, particularly in a ravaged final scene.
TOM HANKS IS IN TROUBLE AT SEA AGAIN, BUT THIS TIME THERE'S NO VOLLEYBALL TO HELP HIM. HE'S CAPTAIN PHILLIPS IN THE LATEST TRUE-LIFE DRAMA FROM PAUL GREENGRASS - THE YEAR'S FIRST SERIOUS OSCAR CONTENDER
WORDS: CHRIS HEWITT
This feature first appeared in issue 291 of Empire magazine.
ON APRIL 9, 2009, the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, bound for Mombasa, Kenya, with 17,000 metric tons of freight on board, was attacked by a small group of Somali pirates using a Taiwanese fishing vessel, the Win Far 161, that they had hijacked just two days earlier.
|Shipping is a blue-collar world, a very physical world at that, and when I worked that out in my head, that's when I knew I could make the film. |
Crewed by merchant marines, who despite their name were unarmed, and captained by a lifelong sailor named Richard Phillips, the Maersk Alabama attempted evasive manoeuvres, but to no avail. It was soon boarded by four corsairs, who seized Captain Phillips and took him hostage. The rest of the crew shut down the ship's power, thwarting the invaders' plans to sail away with it, and managed to take one of the pirates hostage themselves. A tense stand-off followed; an exchange of prisoners went wrong, and the pirates escaped the ship onto a lifeboat. They took Phillips with them, and a game of cat and mouse ensued. Only, instead of a cat, the US Navy deployed two warships. Eventually, on April 12, after an ordeal lasting four days, Captain Phillips was rescued, and the Somalis shot dead or taken into custody.
It's hardly surprising that Hollywood would be interested, almost immediately, in adapting this story and, quickly, powerhouse producing trio Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Scott Rudin snapped up the rights, with Tom Hanks signing on to star in the title role. Now all they needed was a director. With its blend of real-world drama, intrigue and even, when you really looked at it, socio-economic relevance, it seemed like a perfect fit for a man who'd previously turned his journalistic eye to the true-life likes of Bloody Sunday and United 93, while injecting a feverish verisimilitude into the action arena with The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Namely, Paul Greengrass.
"I WOULD SAY it's in my wheelhouse," says Greengrass, talking exclusively to Empire from his office in Oxford. "It's a moment in time, it's very contemporary, and it's got a lot of complexity and richness."
But that didn't stop him from turning the gig down. "I didn't want to do it to begin with," he says. "I couldn't quite see it."
A man who tends to originate his movies, particularly those about real-world incidents, the 57 year-old Londoner didn't see a connection, a way into the material. And then it came to him. "One of the things that really made me want to do it was that my dad was at sea," confesses Greengrass. "He was a merchant seaman, and he was at sea all his life. I'd always wanted to make a film about what it was like at sea. That was part of it."
Barkhad Abdi's Muse confronts Captain Phillips onboard the Maersk Alabama.
In fact, Greengrass had, in the gap between Green Zone (his 2010 Iraq War film with Matt Damon which underperformed at the box office) and finally saying yes to Captain Phillips, flirted with a big-budget adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. That fell by the wayside; it's hard to imagine someone of Greengrass' pedigree faffing around with wooden legs and eyepatches and talking parrots and actors doing bad impressions of Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow. For Greengrass, authenticity is the juice. "I was very interested in real-world piracy," reveals Greengrass. "On the one hand, it's incredibly physical, so you get these intense confrontations on the high seas. And it felt like a very fresh world to me, very dynamic. And what I loved about it was that it goes to winners and losers, and how the world is. It's not about good guys and bad guys, it's basically the conflict between kids who've got nothing, watching the riches of the world roll past them 50 miles out to sea."
|Hanks makes this character so human, so absolutely the Everyman. |
Greengrass' attention to detail and commitment to veracity is well known. On United 93, he recreated the fuselage of that ill-fated plane and asked his actors to go through takes that lasted for the duration of the flight. And throughout his career he's cast real people where he can. That continued on Captain Phillips. Hanks was in the bag, providing starpower galore, so Greengrass wanted less recognisable faces for the rest of the US crew, from Max Martini to Chris Mulkey. But for the Somalis, Greengrass was looking for faces even less recognisable than that. "I absolutely wanted and needed to cast real Somali guys," he says. "They're young, unknown kids. That whole issue is very real to them, and it's wreathed with complexities from their side."
Open casting calls in the US and Britain ("There's a huge Somali community in Minneapolis — the first open casting we had there, 900 people turned up!") yielded "these kids who'd never acted professionally before. They'd done a bit of stuff in youth clubs, and they were fantastic. They brought an authenticity to it".
Captain Phillips is almost two films in one. The first is an epic, modern-day, high-seas action film which, Greengrass being Greengrass, was shot for real on the ocean, principally in Maltese waters. After all, sea legs run in his family. "It was such fantastic fun," he laughs. "I loved it. You're on these gigantic ships, rocking around in the ocean. And once I had really thought about it, you get this amazing seaborne adventure film with a little boat trying to run down a huge boat, and then you get the reverse happening with these gigantic naval ships tracking this tiny little lifeboat. I just felt that visually, it's a fantastic canvas."
And on that lifeboat comes the second part of that Captain Phillips in-movie double-bill: the intimate survival story as the good captain, subjected to some brutal treatment by his captors, tries to endure. "At the heart of it," says Greengrass, "it's about a fantastic character in Captain Phillips and his adversary, who's a young Somali captain (newcomer Barkhad Abdi). It really is a very powerful dynamic — it's real-world pirates, it's what they are like, and what their goals are. The film is really the story of the collision between two captains. Going head-to-head with Tom Hanks is not easy."
Greengrass explains that it's a pirate's life for him.
HERE'S SOMETHING THAT may shock you. Tom Hanks, who once held a monopoly on the Best Actor Oscar that looked likely to end with the ceremony being rebranded The Gumps, has not been nominated for the big one since 2001. Now, when it comes to predicting the future, we're not exactly Nostradamus — we're not even the terrifying floating head of Ray Winstone — but we suspect that Captain Phillips might break the streak. 'Ave a bang on that.
"He's absolutely brilliant in it," says Greengrass, who has already finished the film, spending the seven months between now and its awards season release trying to get his assassination of Martin Luther King movie, Memphis, off the ground. Hanks — bespectacled, goatee beard flecked with grey — doesn’t look as if he’s entirely replicating the real-life Captain Phillips (the floppy, greyish hair isn’t there for one). But Phillips, who’s now back as a working captain, was often on set if Hanks ever needed a top-up of his essence.
"It was interesting, me having grown up with those guys," says Greengrass of Phillips. "He was absolutely one of those guys. It's trucking, basically, trucking on the water. You're hauling freight all around the world, and it's the lifeblood of the global economy. It's that world I remembered so well, with very unpretentious, hardworking people. It's a blue-collar world, a very physical world at that, and when I worked that out in my head, that's when I knew I could make the film."
And, despite only having met Hanks a few times before taking the job, he had no doubts that the veteran A-lister was the right fit for this calloused ‘sea-trucker'. "He just makes this character so big and so human and so absolutely the Everyman. It speaks to us. When you're on that small lifeboat, it was absolutely, completely physically arduous. But he was completely up for it."
For more in-depth articles on your favourite films, subscribe to Empire today.