When Hollywood wants big drama, the kind that has Academy Award’ written all over it, it goes to Tom Hanks. That’s nothing new – he’s been the industry’s go-to guy since the early 1990s, after heavyweight performances in the likes of Philadelphia and Forrest Gump proved he was the real deal. We all loved Turner & Hooch, but come on, when he turns it up to 11, he really is the business.
That being the case, Hanks was always a frontrunner to play Richard Phillips, the cargo ship captain kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2009. It’s a story that taps into a very American sense of human triumph, the kind we’ve seen Hanks channel before, in films such as Saving
Private Ryan and Apollo 13 [another movie about a real-life captain floating up shit creek]. When it came to putting the story on the big screen in Captain Phillips, Hollywood was sure to take it very seriously – and Hanks not only has the undeniable talent, but also understands the responsibilities that comes with such a project.
It goes hand in hand,” says Hanks, any time you stand up in public and say Hey,
I’ve got a story to tell’. There is a bit of an advantage and a pressure that comes along with something that’s nonfiction-ish. The advantages, if you’re smart about it, is that there’s very little that you need to make up. You have things to figure out – how to take reality and turn it into some sort of dramatic effect, but that helps out because you don’t have to spend a lot of time making plot devices. The responsibility aspect is that as long as you’re making the same film the film-maker is making, and going for the same empirical sense of truth, you have to hue as closely to the truth as possible.”
The film-maker in question is British director Paul Greengrass. Like Hanks, Greengrass has previous form with true stories. In 2006 he turned the events aboard 9/11 flight United 93 into a tense but respectful thriller. He also revolutionised the action genre with his blistering Jason Bourne movies [having directed Supremacy and Ultimatum]. For Captain Phillips, Greengrass appears to combine the two styles, creating a real-life thriller with the power and pace of an action film. The end result is a strong contender for film of the year – an exciting, disturbing and utterly brilliant thrill-ride.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Phillips was captain on the Maersk Alabama, a container ship transporting supplies from the US to Kenya. After Somali pirates attacked and boarded the vessel – the first successful piracy attack on a ship under the US flag since the 19th century – Phillips was taken hostage on the Alabama’s lifeboat, where the pirates held him for five days, under intense equatorial heat and little food or water. It’s a remarkable series of events that lends itself perfectly to cinema – essentially a story about an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation. To get to the heart of the character, there was only one way for Hanks to do it -get to know the real man, which as he says, can be strange for any actor.
It’s not the most realistic of moments to walk into someone’s house and say, Yeah, I’m the Forrest guy, and now I will be playing you in a film, whether you like it or not.’
But Rich had been through the celebrity exposure after it happened. He completely got what we set out to do. I was trying to get an understanding of what complicated a thing being captain is in the first place. He had one set of rules, one set of specific tasks to perform as a captain, and as soon as he saw those armed men on the horizon he had to wipe that board clean and come up with a completely different mental and physical formula to see him through. I wouldn’t have necessarily got that had I not talked to him.
Phillips’ input was invaluable to piecing together the story. Considering the emotional and psychological stress he was put under (loaded would have fainted at the first glimpse of a Jolly Roger, let alone five days trapped in a lifeboat with armed pirates), Phillips’ recollection of the events is impressive – and not all the memories are as horrific as you might imagine.
In the days on the lifeboat, says Hanks, there were moments of great hilarity. They all laughed at some point. They started joking with each other, ragging on each other’s navy, and they made Phillips keep tying knots to demonstrate his expertise. At the same time, there was a steady erosion of the physical ability to keep going. He was continually worried about one thing – that one big guy was a loose canon and could shoot him in the head at any moment for any given reason. He was also very much aware of the withdrawals the hijackers were going through as they ran out of khat, a stimulant leaf that they chew. He was worried that there was going to be some other breakdown that would not be healthy for him. I spent, altogether, five or six hours with him on two occasions, and each time some other little detail would come up. I think it’s a pretty tactile memory for him.
Needless to say, Hanks’ interpretation of Phillips’ stories is an artistic masterclass.
The critics are already hailing it as his finest moment, and they’re probably right – in the final moments, Hanks proves why he’s Hollywood’s go-to guy, why he is indeed the real deal. His career trajectory might have changed over the years, from lightweight comedies to Oscar-winning drama, but Hanks is still the very best at what he does. Captain of the good ship Hollywood.
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