Hollywood movies that take place at sea usually fake it. When James Cameron sank the Titanic, he didn’t tow a replica into the Atlantic Ocean; he built a seven-million-gallon tank off California’s Baja coast. When Ang Lee put a boy and a tiger in a lifeboat in Life of Pi, he used computer effects and built a giant wave tank at an abandoned airport in Taiwan. But, for Captain Phillips, the true story of a U.S. container ship captured by Somali pirates in 2009, Paul Greengrass filmed 75 per cent of the scenes in open ocean, some 25 to 30 km off the coast of Malta, on a working container ship. The British filmmaker—best known for the 9/11 hijacking drama United 93 and a pair of spy films, The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Supremacy—has a scrupulous eye for documentary realism. And with Captain Phillips, he’s made what may be the most authentic maritime thriller ever to come out of Hollywood.
At its centre is the gyroscopic calm of a commanding performance by Tom Hanks. The actor runs a gauntlet of physical challenges to portray Richard Phillips, whose vessel, Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean four years ago. This, too, feels like an anomaly. Hanks saw his career peak in the ’90s with a string of iconic roles in Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan. By the time he was co-starring with a volleyball in Cast Away (2000), his benign appeal as Hollywood’s designated Everyman was beginning to wear thin. But as Phillips, a hard-headed sea captain who started out as a Boston cabbie, Hanks ventures out of his wheelhouse to craft a flinty portrait of resilience and cunning.
Greengrass says everyone told him, “Oh, my God, don’t shoot on water. It’s a director’s graveyard.” But, interviewed by phone from L.A., he says, “I felt this film needed to be shot on ocean water, not in a tank, not a harbour. It was highly arduous. We were out at sea for months on end.” And because digital cameras and salt water don’t mix, the director shot on film, a rare event these days.
As with Apollo 13, we know the story’s outcome in advance, but Greengrass creates harrowing suspense with a drama immersed in detail. Based on Phillips’s book, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, most of the film takes place on the cargo ship, which is captured by a gang of four young Somalis who chase it down on outboard skiffs and clamber up ladders to overwhelm the unarmed crew. “You’d think a ship like that would be roomy,” says Greengrass. “But every corridor and staircase is tiny. Cramped. A lot of exhaust fumes. Motion sickness. Every single thing about it was hard.”
The drama’s final act transpires in the tight confines of a covered lifeboat, bobbing on the waves like a space capsule. Inside, Phillips is held at gunpoint as a U.S. navy destroyer, a frigate, a helicopter and a SEAL team close in. Greengrass shot the scene in an actual lifeboat at sea, a suffocating, seasick ordeal for the cast and crew. But Hanks “was in there for hour after an hour,” says the director. “He just wanted to shoot and shoot.”
In an age of comic-book superheroes, it’s refreshing to see a 57-year-old superstar literally at sea, pushing his physical limits. “Tom Hanks has built his career playing ordinary men,” says Greengrass. “This performance is a study of endurance and heroism, but he crafts it from pieces of doubt, uncertainty and fear. It’s not built from hubris.” The pirates are even more fallible. Led by an ex-fisherman—played with finesse by Barkhad Abdi, a Somali-born Minnesotan with no acting experience—they are depicted as sad desperados pushed to crime by economic hardship.
Hanks displays the grit, gravitas and technical precision to make him an Oscar contender. But he’s up against another waterlogged performance, by a Hollywood icon with two decades on him. In All Is Lost, due Oct. 24, Robert Redford gives a powerhouse performance as a solo sailor fighting to save himself after a storm capsizes his boat. And he does it without a line of dialogue—a 77-year-old action hero on his own private Titanic. Forget about the pirates, Tom. Look out for the old man and the sea.