Heroism is a given in Hollywood movies. For the most part, audiences understand—once they reach adulthood, at least—that what they’re seeing on-screen isn’t real, even when the film in question is based on a true story or otherwise in a naturalistic mode. Still, it’s easier to be conscious of what you are seeing than of what you aren’t. When Tom Cruise casually strolls away from a massive explosion (actually, he’s usually running like a maniac, isn’t he? Sorry, substitute someone else), or Jennifer Lawrence endures repeated dystopian competitions in which everyone around her gets brutally murdered, their characters’ superhuman strength and fortitude and agility registers strongly; everyone acknowledges that it’s make-believe. Rarely, however, do we stop to think about just how traumatic the experiences of the average action hero would be in real life. Indeed, the most outlandish thing that happens in many movies—passing completely unnoticed, taken for granted—is simply the protagonist forging ahead with the story after its first horrifically violent incident, rather than turning into a gibbering, distraught shell of a human being.
That’s why the final scene of Captain Phillips, in which the title character abruptly goes into shock, ranks among the most remarkable, unprecedented moments in cinema history. Granted, it’s not quite as powerful as it might have been had the actor in question been a major action star, rather than beloved everyman Tom Hanks; give this humbling, self-effacing denouement to, say, Bruce Willis, and the collective global astonishment might well throw the planet off its axis. All the same, it’s beyond bracing to see Phillips, who’s held it together in highly stressful circumstances for the entire film, utterly collapse in the last few minutes, after military snipers gun down the Somali pirates who are holding him hostage and threatening his life. Seeing him respond as a normal person would to a near-death experience makes it clear just how ludicrous it is when characters shrug that sort of thing off. Even if you didn’t see Captain Phillips, take a look at the clip below, which is almost as harrowing even when it’s divorced from context.
Director Paul Greengrass made a savvy casting decision here: He cast a couple of actual medics to play, essentially, themselves, instructing them to just say and do whatever they would actually say and do when handling a trauma victim. According to a friend of mine who worked as an apprentice editor on the film, the woman, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Danielle Albert, was extremely nervous and flubbed the first take badly, then was reassured and guided by Hanks, who told her that he was nervous, too. (Given the nature of the scene, he might not have been blowing smoke. Making yourself that vulnerable, even as an acting job, can’t be easy.) In any case, she sells the scene beautifully with her brisk, casual professionalism, treating Phillips’ confusion, panic, and anguish as if it’s something she’s dealt with a million times before. The other guy in the scene, Fire Controlman 1st Class (SW) Nathan Cobler, is on hand solely because there would always be backup in that situation; he was cast literally just a few minutes before the camera rolled. Together, the two sailors provide a credible context for Hanks’ performance, implicitly making it clear that his reaction, as extreme as it may appear to moviegoers, is considered perfectly normal.
And then there’s Hanks, who was expected by many to be Oscar-nominated that year (he wasn’t), and arguably deserved a spot on the ballot for these three minutes alone. Actors aren’t often asked to simulate being in shock, but it generally involves almost a complete lack of affect—just staring blankly into space, as if shock were identical to catatonia. Hanks, by contrast, portrays the struggle of someone who’s desperately trying to function and failing. Phillips is so spaced out that the medic often has to repeat her questions, but he’s also capable of suddenly snapping back into focus, following her gaze so intensely as she moves around him, cutting his shirt off, that he winds up leaning forward in an effort to work out what she’s saying to him. His first spoken words are “I’m okay,” which is obviously false, as she immediately notes in the most matter-of-fact way imaginable. A few seconds later, he can’t even remember the words to describe where he’s feeling pain. Hanks shifts Phillips’ level of awareness every few seconds, and even if that isn’t 100 percent accurate, it feels accurate. He looks realistically adrift. Even when he finally starts crying, the sobs come and go, whereas I have yet to make it through this scene once without tearing up from about a minute in right through to the end.
And then a truly amazing thing happens: The movie ends.
This is the last time we see Captain Phillips. What follows is a helicopter shot of the Maersk Alabama and the rescue ships, some quick title cards revealing what happened to both the real Captain Phillips and the real head pirate (played in the film by Barkhad Abdi, who was Oscar-nominated), and the closing credits. No attempt is made to restore Phillips’ dignity; there’s no epilogue in which he reunites with his wife or courageously returns to sea (though the title cards inform us that he did both of those things). Captain Phillips is treated very much as a hero by the movie, whether or not that was the case in real life (there’s been considerable debate on that point), and it’s hard to emphasize just how radical an idea it is to allow the very last image of a studio movie’s hero to be his complete and utter emotional collapse. That Columbia Pictures signed off on it is incredible, frankly, and I’m guessing that producer Scott Rudin, who has a history of championing challenging work, may deserve some of the credit for that. Whoever fought for it did Captain Phillips a great service, because a conventional epilogue intended to restore order would have been, if not ruinous, at least severely detrimental. Instead, the movie ends on a startling high note.