Stop right now if you haven’t seen Captain Phillips yet. Major spoilers.
Tom Hanks gives a fantastic performance in Captain Phillips, but it’s the final scene of the film that takes his work to a whole new level. It’s arguably the best piece of acting he’s ever done.
After he’s rescued from his Somalian captors and brought on board the USS Bainbridge, he’s taken to the infirmary to be cleaned up. The Captain is in shock, and completely loses his composure, shaking uncontrollably, at a loss for words, and confused about his surroundings. Hanks goes to a vulnerable and fragile place that is a completely unexpected ending to a story that would usually have our “hero” continuing to show his strength.
At a post-screening Q&A at a New York Film Festival, Hanks admitted it was unique: “It’s a moment like I’ve never had making films. It’s not on the page at all.”
And would you believe that wasn’t even originally planned?
Hanks and director Paul Greengrass originally shot a different (but similar) final scene on board the Bainbridge, but as Greengass says, it didn’t feel right. “We shot a scene upstairs which was a similar scene, because we felt there had to be a cathartic moment where you understood what the experience had meant, but we could tell it wasn’t perfect.”
Greengrass asked the real USS Bainbridge crew what they did with the real Phillips when they brought him onboard and found out that they had taken him to the infirmary to clean him up. Greengrass went up to the infirmary surrounded by some of the ship’s real crew members, and decided to just wing a new final scene, asking the crew to simply do to Tom what they would do in the real situation.
The cinematographer took a few minutes to set up some lighting and they gave it a shot. Hanks explains, the first take was a wash:
“We had the crew of the infirmary and they didn’t know they were going to be in a movie that day. They thought they’d maybe be extras, but here they are with cameras on them. There’s a procedure that you can be very confident in, and there is a behavior that, if you’re lucky, you can recreate. The first take completely fell apart because these people had never been in a movie before and they could not get past the horrible self-consciousness of everything going on around them. So we stopped and tried it again. At that point, the people were quite amazing, particularly the woman [who tended to Phillips], and we just ran through it. It took about an hour and a half.”
How about that? A scene that will probably be one of Tom Hanks’ most iconic movie moments (and might win him a third Oscar) was just done on a whim. Greengrass has nothing but praise for his leading man who took the scene to such an honest and vulnerable place:
“The actor’s job is to divine and embody the truth, and that day was a very interesting case in point. With great actors, there’s just a tiny gap. The door is there, and it takes courage to walk through it, as an actor, and find the truth. That’s what is there in that scene—the truth of vulnerability, shock, confusion, and all the things that you’d expect of an experience like that. There’s a shocking sense of humanity. You have to seize those moments…and Tom did.”