'The Summit' and 'Captain Phillips' offer authentic thrills
Fortunately for cargo ship captain Richard Phillips, the Gulf of Aden is neither K2 nor the moon. In 2009, Phillips was taken hostage by pirates who'd hijacked the Kenya-bound Maersk Alabama. His subsequent rescue by Navy SEALs came after a standoff that ended in the death of three pirates; a fourth, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, surrendered and is serving a hefty term in federal prison.
A year later, Phillips penned a book about his ordeal, and Hollywood pounced. Hanks is perfectly cast as Phillips, an everyman who runs a tight ship but displays an admirable ability to improvise under pressure.
"He was essentially trying anything to shake them off his path. [The pirates] let him hold onto his radio, and he was able to communicate with everybody else on the ship that way," Hanks said, in town to promote the film with Greengrass and co-star Barkhad Abdi. "[Phillips] had so much knowledge as a merchant mariner. Prior in his career, he'd been in a hurricane in the middle of the Pacific, in which he was helpless — so he'd experienced a different type of terror at sea. With [the pirates], he had somebody he could interact with. It was a different type of fear and anxiety."
Abdi, cast from an open call among Minneapolis' large Somali community, plays pirate leader Muse. Captain Phillips focuses mostly on Hanks' character, but it takes the time to emphasize that piracy is one of few grim career options for Somali youths. The first-time actor, who left Somalia at a young age, brings nuance to what could've been a one-note villain.
"I relate to that character, because that could have been me," he said. "I was lucky enough to have parents that took me to another country, where I could be a better person. But what if my parents had been killed? I don't excuse [Muse's] actions, but I understand his motives."
With a résumé full of intelligent, doc-inspired thrillers (2006's United 93, 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum), director Greengrass has mastered the art of fast-paced action filmmaking. He's especially known for his use of handheld cameras, and Captain Phillips is no exception.
"Ships rock around. How do you shoot on a lifeboat and keep it steady? It's impossible. You want the images that you're capturing to authentically arise out of the environment that you're shooting in," Greengrass explained, with a caveat. "The faster-moving your sequence, and the more intensely complicated your action is, it [becomes] imperative to render detail. Detail is what gives you acceleration and focus. You've got to be inside the action, and your filmmaking must unlock the inner dynamics in a way that's clear. With this film, you've got a very simple, unbelievably dramatic, stark story. If we render it as authentically as we can, we'll find out what it means — which you couldn't have found from the news, because you're looking at it from the outside. You can only find out by being in it." *
THE SUMMIT and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS open Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters.