'Captain Phillips' aims to hijack awards season

"Forrest Gump" and "Castaway" star Tom Hanks again plays an everyday guy thrust into exceptional circumstances in "Captain Phillips," a true story of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates.

Directed in hyper-realistic style by British director Paul Greengrass -- whose "United 93" reconstructed a 9/11 hijacking drama -- the movie looks like a contender possibly for multiple Oscar nominations.

The film, based on "A Captain's Duty," the autobiography by the real Captain Richard Phillips, tells the story of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama, attacked off the coast of Somalia by pirates in 2009, the first American ship to be hijacked in 200 years.

After their bid to to take the entire crew hostage fails, the pirates instead kidnap only the captain, taking him off into a sealed lifeboat.

The story, which played out in real time in April 2009, ends with the heroic captain being saved by US Navy SEALS, and three of the four pirates killed. The other was arrested and brought to justice in the United States.

Greengrass, using his trademark documentary style, treats the story as a thriller, focusing on the tension between Captain Phillips and the pirate leader Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi).

"What moments of crisis do is create a ballet of tension building up. You have to capture that ratcheting up, as accurately as you can," the Briton said ahead of the film's US release this Friday.

"If you can do it, you can get something that's underneath that, which is common humanity and compassion," he added.

The director, who also made two of the blockbuster "Bourne" movies, prevented the actors playing the four pirates from meeting those playing the crew before the assault scenes were filmed, to increase tension.

Some of the Somali actors, unknowns who had turned up for an open casting for the film, only met Hanks for the first time when playing those scenes.

"It gave an edge to the actors and gave an edge to the crew," said Greengrass.

"It helped Tom too, because he didn't know them and they didn't know him, so there's no sort of intimacy. They were antagonists at that moment. And that you could really tell on screen," he added.

Hanks, recalling the scene, said: "Inhabiting a character and staying on story, and on point, while maintaining that character, is something that not everybody can do.

"And these guys, and particularly Barkhad, were evident from the get-go ...there was true terror in the eyes of all the white guys that are on board the ship when they came on to the bridge that time," added the actor, who won back-to-back Oscars in 1994 and 1995 for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump."

Abdi, who was seven when his family emigrated to the United States, one year after civil war erupted in Somalia, said: "It was really scary.

"I hadn't seen Tom until that first scene. The fear was all natural. That night I was nervous, because we wanted to meet Tom but we were told that we weren't allowed to see Tom until that scene," he added.

The actor, a former limousine driver, improvised a key line used in the trailer for the movie, when the pirate chief tells Captain Phillips to look him in the eyes.

"I used a lot of imagination. I was improvising. That line came up 'I'm the captain now'. That wasn't in the script," he said.

In real life, Captain Phillips' story is not quite as simple a hero's tale as in the movie; a number of crew have sued him for allegedly ignoring warnings to stay further away from the Somali coast, thereby negligently endangering their lives.

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