There are no scurvy knaves swinging cutlasses, or a Jolly Roger flapping above the fo'c'sle, but it's a pirate movie all the same. "Captain Phillips," which opens next Friday, is about the plight of an American cargo ship, its seizure by Somali pirates, the actions of the crew, the courage of their commander, and a quality that Ernest Hemingway used to call grace under pressure.
But when you're making a movie about recent events and living people -- the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, after all, was seized in April 2009, and (spoiler alert) Phillips is still with us -- filmmakers are faced with particular problems, namely sticking to the facts while turning them into drama.
"You're weighing reality and authenticity and, of course, the need to create a compressed drama over two hours," said director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Ultimatum," "The Bourne Supremacy," "Bloody Sunday," "United 93"). "You can dramatize things loosely or closely, and, given my background, I'm more comfortable being closer.
Keeping it real
"But, that said, the events here unfolded over three or four days, and that was the central challenge we faced: How to compress these events and stay true to the fundamentals. But I think we did. I think the fundamentals of what happened are there on-screen."
For an actor like Tom Hanks -- who plays Richard Phillips, and seems very likely to be nominated for what would be his third best actor Oscar -- it means performing while knowing you'll be subject to a particular kind of scrutiny. And sailing into it.
"I read his book prior to reading the screenplay," Hanks said of Phillips' memoir, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea." "And I did get together with him on two occasions and explained to him, y'know, that 'I will say things you never said and it will be places you never were but if we do things thematically, it will be spot on.' "
It was a conversation with Phillips' wife, Andrea, however, that provided his route to portraying the now-retired seaman.
"You have to load up with an awful lot of facts," Hanks said of playing any real-life person (which he's done in such films as "Philadelphia," "Apollo 13" and "Catch Me If You Can"). "But there's always some detail that makes the tumblers fall, and it locks into place."
Key to the character
He saw the Phillipses on a couple of occasions. "I didn't want to be a jerk and ask 'What was it like? What were you feeling?' You don't want to ask questions like most journalists do. But Andrea said something quite interesting. I asked if she ever went onboard her husband's ships and she said: 'I used to. But then I stopped. It's no fun, because he's a different human being when he's onboard ship. He's usually a happy-go-lucky guy, but on the ship, he's always serious.' That was the tumbler for me. Right then, I felt as though I knew what to do."
On April 8, 2009, the Maersk Alabama -- whose cargo included relief supplies for Somalia, Uganda and Kenya -- was boarded by Somali pirates. Most of the crew members locked themselves in the engine room, while Phillips and two other crewmen stayed on the bridge. The pirates, with their speedboat sunk -- the crew had continually swung the ship's rudder against it -- desperately took to a covered lifeboat, and took Phillips with them. In the film, at least, the situation is made even more fraught by the presence of Muse, the lead Somali buccaneer, played with wiry intensity by young Somalian newcomer Barkhad Abdi.
"It wasn't as easy as it looks," Abdi said of a movie in which nothing looks easy. "I didn't even know how to swim, really. We did a lot of practice. At times, I would get seasick in that little lifeboat. They don't smell that good."
Hanks said that anyone who wasn't an actor "ended up vomiting" during the scenes on the open water (other scenes were shot on sound stages).
"First the focus puller disappeared," Hanks said, "Then Barry [Aykroyd, the cinematographer], then the sound mixer. We actors got to sit down and close our eyes, but for those guys who actually had to work, it was tough. On a stage it's more like an amusement-park ride, but when you're on the open sea and you drop 10 feet and your stomach goes up around your neck, that's when you have problems."
For all the bobbing and weaving going on in "Captain Phillips," the scene that may end up the most memorable for audiences will be a post-hijack sequence involving Phillips, one that Hanks explained was done in an impromptu fashion and the credit for which he handed off to Greengrass. Greengrass handed it right back.
"What you see in that scene is a door, just a tiny gap in a door, and it takes courage to walk through and find the truth," the director said. "And that's what's in that scene. There's shock, confusion, all the things you'd expect, but whenever I see that scene, there's a shocking sense of humanity. And an actor finding the truth. You have to seize those moments, and Tom did."
Greengrass' action flicks.
Paul Greengrass isn't really thought of as an "action director," a designation usually reserved for directors of movies with robots, steroids and vacant stares. But that may be because he makes movies about ideas, and the action is organic -- his two "Bourne" movies were certainly among the more memorably physical films of recent years; "United 93" had no shortage of reality-based action, and now "Captain Phillips" captures the siege aboard the merchant ship Maersk Alabama with as much emphasis on the visceral as the psychological. Greengrass doesn't have a huge filmography, but what's there is pretty choice:
BLOODY SUNDAY (2002) A semi-documentary-style drama about the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" shootings of 26 unarmed civil-rights protesters by British soldiers in Northern Ireland. The film is anchored by a terrific performance by James Nesbitt, as well as a focused sense of outrage. It shared first prize at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004) Doug Liman had directed the first of the three Matt Damon "Bourne" movies, and his technique of executing physical action in real time was completely reversed by Greengrass, who put his own more stylized stamp on the Robert Ludlum adaptations. In this one, amnesiac Jason Bourne realizes he's a CIA agent and is being pursued by the agency.
UNITED 93 (2006) The success of "Bourne" enabled Greengrass to make this critically acclaimed and rigorously fact-based account of the 9/11 catastrophe, replete with people who didn't look like actors and a certain speculation about what went on in the air that day.
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007) An even bigger success than its predecessor, this one finds Jason B. eluding a ruthless CIA supervisor and his assassins while trying to get a grip on how he became a government killer and why. Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Albert Finney top a first-rate cast.
THE GREEN ZONE (2010) Another Damon-Greengrass collaboration, set inside postwar Iraq, about the search for weapons of mass destruction and possessing its director's usual level of nervous tension.