Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi and Paul Greengrass at a NYFF press conference. Photo by Brian Brooks
If Paul Greengrass could dictate this year's contenders for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, no doubt he'd pick his two captains. It's likely that most directors would feel similarly about their stars, but judging from Friday morning's reactions to the press screening of Captain Phillips ahead of tonight's World Premiere of the movie, he likely has some allies.
The film, which opens the 51st New York Film Festival on Friday night, is the gripping true story of Captain Richard Phillips, played by two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, who was at the helm of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama hundreds of miles off the Horn of Africa when Somali pirates, armed to the teeth, violently seized the ship and hijacked its 25-man crew for ransom. Events played out like a cat and mouse thriller as crew hid while Phillips and other officers were initially held hostage on the bridge. Paul Greengrass, who received an Oscar nomination for United 93 in 2007, based the story on Captain Richard Phillips book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals and Dangerous Days at Sea. The book's title about sums up the plot in one fell swoop.
"You can dramatize things loosely or closely, so there's a spectrum," Greengrass said at the Walter Reade Theater on Friday afternoon. "You set the parameters but, given my background, I'm much more comfortable being closer… [This] falls over 4 or 5 days. The fundamental challenge we faced was how to compress these events and still remain true to the fundamentals. But I think we did. The fundamentals of what happened are there on the screen."
Paul Greengrass' NYFF opener Captain Phillips
The multi-layered thriller gives a complex portrait of the effects of globalization, but focuses on the relationship between Phillips and his Somali counterpart, Muse, played incredibly by newcomer Barkhad Abdi. "It wasn't easy. I didn't know how to swim," a shy Abdi said, catching himself during the Q&A with emotion. "I took the role…[laughs] But we did a lot of practice and I did get seasick."
Filmed in a London studio and at sea off Malta, the Maersk Alabama's seizure only hints at the high stakes drama that follow. After the Maersk's crew managed to duck the pirates, tensions peek as a pirate is injured and the crew captures their Somali leader. Now, both leaders are captive of the others' crew. Onboard deck, the pirates and Maersk shipmates attempt a swap, but the Somalis manage to get the upper hand and Phillips is taken aboard the lifeboat and the saga continues in a hot dank hull aboard the lifeboat. The Maersk follows them as the Somalis speed the lifeboat toward Somalia and what they hope will still result in a huge ransom. But the U.S. Navy enters the picture and what had been an onboard cat and mouse chase turns into a high stakes high seas standoff.
"We shot on an identical ship at sea and in some small confines," said Hanks. "The task into folding ourselves in Paul's good hands was to be true to the story at hand…I can probably walk you through this and point out some moments that didn't happen exactly, but thematically it is. That's tricky and can get away from you but we were searching for that combination of procedure and behavior that will be reflective of what really happened. And that's very tough when you're telling nonfiction entertainment."
Film Society's Kent Jones, Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi and Paul Greengrass. Photo by Brian Brooks
Greengrass repeatedly mentioned "truth" as central to his filmmaking modus operandi and for delivering good performances. This article will not give away the ending, but suffice it to say, the final scenes of the movie will likely be discussed a lot as critics and awards prognosticators analyze Hanks' performance. The scene was not originally scripted the way it appears on screen, but Greengrass and Hanks adapted to the moment when they met the actual Captain of the U.S.S. Bainbridge, who gave a first-hand account how the night climaxed.
"Acting is many things," said Greengrass. "It's playing lines, of course, but it's a lot more profound than that. It's also trying to find the truth in a human situation which will be sketched out by a screenwriter... But that's a map of the journey. In the end, the actors job is to define and embody the truth… There's a tiny door and it takes courage to walk through and find the truth. It's the truth of vulnerability and confusion and all the things you'd expect with an experience like that."
Tom Hanks read the book, which inspired Captain Phillips' screenplay (written by Billy Ray) and also interviewed Richard Phillips ahead of the film's shoot. Hanks said research plays an important part in understanding a character, but that he searches for a certain essence that allows him to assume a persona. He found that after asking Phillips' wife a question.
"I asked her if she ever visited him on the ship and she said that she used to but that he is a different person when he's on the ship," Hanks explained. "He's easy going and happy go lucky, but when he's on the ship, he's always serious—serious work and he's the captain. That was the tumbler for me. I don't know what it was, but that was when I knew what to do when Paul presented something to me."