Tom Hanks’s face is quite prominent this year at the BFI London Film Festival. He is the leading man in the opening night gala feature Captain Phillips and one of the lead actors in the closing night gala, Saving Mr. Banks. Two very different roles (one a cargo-ship captain, the other the filmmaker Walt Disney) though both based on real life individuals. His turn in Captain Phillips, the new work by The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 director Paul Greengrass, is astonishingly good. I haven’t yet seen him in Saving Mr. Banks, so there is a chance I might have to take back my words here, but I believe this may well be his best ever performance.
The movie is based on the real-life hijacking of an American cargo-ship by Somali pirates in 2009. Most of the crew hid themselves in the engine rooms whilst the captain and a few others tried to negotiate with the pirates. The hijacking goes wrong, and the pirates leave the ship taking the captain with them as a hostage in a lifeboat.
Paul Greengrass is famous for blurring the lines between documentary and drama. In the press conference after the screening I attended, he and Tom Hanks were very clear in making the distinction between what is fact and fiction and how certain parts of the true story had to be condensed. However, just through his style of direction Greengrass makes the film feel terrifyingly real and eye-wateringly intense. He often harnesses handheld camerawork in order to cultivate a ‘real’ feel to the action (the term for the style, cinema vérité, does of course roughly translate as ‘cinema of truth’) and here it really does add to the tension.
The final scenes build to an almost unbearable crescendo of shredded nerves, tears and lots of blood. During these moments Hanks is as we’ve never seen him before. Brutalised, terrified and in a state of shock, his character goes through a living hell and the actor, who many cinemagoers will know and love for his light comedies, manages to do something truly harrowing with the material he is given. This is an extremely powerful film of the kind that doesn’t come along very often. It aims to thrill and unsettle and it certainly did that for me.
Captain Phillips (2013), directed by Paul Greengrass, is showing tonight at the BFI London Film Festival for the opening night gala. It is released nationwide by Sony Pictures on 18 October.