Tom Hanks has never been as emotionally naked as in the final five minutes of “Captain Phillips.” It’s a powerful catharsis after the harrowing ordeal with the Somali pirates, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was unscripted and improvised with the actual medic on duty in the infirmary (Danielle Albert). I dissected the memorable scene with Hanks and director Paul Greengrass (watch below). Despite a very competitive race, it’s generating buzz about a potential third Oscar for the popular actor.
Turns out they shot the initial ending in which Phillips is alone for the first time after the rescue and gathers himself. But it didn’t deliver the emotional impact they were seeking.
“The actual captain of the Bainbridge, Frank Castellano, was there observing us,” Hanks recalls, “and we asked when he met Phillips and he said [that it wasn’t until] after he came out of the infirmary. And we said, infirmary? ‘He was such a mess that we had to find out if he was injured.’ Paul asked to check it out. It could have been a scene of seven seconds that turned the other scene into something that might have made more sense.
“But I didn’t know what was necessarily going to happen. I felt comfortable because we were authentically capturing the procedure that goes on and that’s the only thing that matters. We weren’t making anything up — we weren’t slapping something in there to cover a bald spot.”
Of course, Greengrass, the dedicated documentarian, seized the serendipitous moment. For him, filmmaking is a haphazard process with purpose, searching down a dark tunnel with a tiny flashlight that only works intermittently, trying to find the way.
“And then that magical thing happens called opportunity,” Greengrass suggests. “And of course going from the captain’s cabin down to the medical room was a nightmare with a film crew from one end of the warship to the other. ‘OK, guys we’re gonna go into the medical room and we’re gonna shoot a scene — I don’t know exactly what it is but we’re gonna sort it out when we get there.’ And essentially everyone goes into a state of blind panic, or acting on instinct, which is a really good place to make a film because everybody stops thinking about it and just acts. You get into a frenzy and here’s a young medical officer who just considers it a training exercise, who’s told to forget that it’s Tom Hanks and goes white.”
But after messing up the first take, Albert gathered herself, calmly went through the examination, and Hanks took her lead. They only did four takes but he pretty much nailed it in the second one, letting the scene wash over him
According to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who relied on his own documentary instincts in just letting the camera roll in the tiny room, the juxtaposition of Phillips’ tragedy and Albert’s professionalism meet in a way that you usually don’t encounter in commercial movies.
“I honestly don’t remember much of it because it was done like a hot, white light but it did sort of get a sense of crescendo,” Hanks admits. “Instinctual, yes, but the making of the movie was a very tactile thing, and so I was able to physically jump into the procedure that was happening to me. And that was probably another great advantage in the scene because I didn’t have to do anything — it all happened to me.”
Hanks let it all out. But he had spoken to Phillips prior to the shoot about the post-traumatic stress he experienced for weeks, breaking down in the shower or waking up in great distress. He couldn’t stop crying and a Navy SEAL told him not to fight it and let it flow out of his system. That’s what Hanks accomplished.
Not surprisingly, the scene establishes its own dramatic arc, as Phillips enters the room in a state of shock. He’s then overcome with fear before finally surrendering to his emotions as he lies down and snaps out of it. One of the highlights is when he gasps at the amount of blood on his body. Another is when he thanks the medic twice, calmly and then full of fear.
“I will tell you that the most tactile aspect of it was this woman’s voice and this woman’s touch,” Hanks reveals. “And that was just total serendipity: that was the gods of fortune just smiling upon us that she was a woman in charge of the infirmary that day. And it ended up mirroring the question that Catherine Keener asked at the beginning of the movie, which was, ‘Are we gonna be OK? Are we gonna make it through the future that’s coming down the pike?’ At the end, this woman is being nice to Richard Phillips; she’s being kind and asking if he’s OK. She’s touching his scalp and it was powerful to be there and to be soothed by her.”
Greengrass, who noticed a transformation in Hanks’ performance after the first take, wasn’t even present in the room during the second take because it was so cramped. “Actors are like the guys who go into the desert with a stick looking for the underground water that’s going to save the community. The great actors — and Tom is one of them — are the truth diviners. Then you’ve got to have the courage to play that scene with absolute conviction and absolute control…because when you’re dealing with such intense emotions; it’s about the definition and the detail of it all. It’s a spiritual moment.”
By the end of the scene, you forget that you’re watching Tom Hanks the movie star. He’s become Captain Phillips. “Most of the time there’s a language that helps you get there, but what was surprising about this is that we didn’t know it was gonna happen,” Hanks observes. “This just came out of nowhere but the entire movie was always being carried on your shoulders so it was all right. Moviemaking’s a bitch sometimes — it beats the shit out of you.”