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21 October 2013

"You're Not Just a Fisherman"

For some reason, I've always tried to stay clear of Tom Hanks movies. I think it dates to when my parents made me watch Apollo 13. I was 11 and I don't know why it freaked me out so much, but perhaps if I just watched it again, all would be forgiven. I have made exceptions over the years, notably for Catch Me If You Can, which I really like. As such I hadn't planned to see Paul Greengrass's new film Captain Phillips, in which Hanks stars as the eponymous captain of an American container ship that comes under attack by a band of Somali pirates. But the movie's reviews were so positive — the O word being mentioned frequently — that I decided to give it a whirl this afternoon.

Captain Phillips is based on the memoir by the real Captain Richard Phillips of the extraordinary events that befell him back in 2009. I vaguely remember hearing about the story in the news at the time and the fact that Phillips had managed to write a memoir gives away a fairly big clue about the outcome of the film, but this didn't spoil the film in any way, or do anything to erode the incredible tension that builds up, especially in the closing act. It is a genuinely thrilling thriller, and I hardly noticed that it ran to 2h15, let alone minded the length.

As the movie opens, Phillips is tasked with captaining a container ship from Oman to Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. The cargo includes a large amount of food, fresh water and medical supplies, but Phillips has received an email alert to the recent increase in pirate activities off the coast of Somalia — near to where the ship is due to pass. Meanwhile, on the shores of Somalia, another captain is preparing to board his own vessel. Muse (Barkhad Abdi) picks his crew mainly on the basis of the gifts the men can offer him in return for the huge dividends they will surely reap.

Phillips, concerned by the alerts asks his first mate Shane (Michael Chernus) to run a few drills for the crew, to help prepare in the extremely unlikely event that they are boarded by pirates. But during the drill, Phillips spots a pair of dots on the radar that seem to be following his ship. Once they get closer, the binoculars reveal that they are a band of eight or so armed men in a pair of skiffs. And they are definitely heading his way. With a quiet calm, Phillips does everything he can to try to keep his men and his ship safe. After placing a call with an international maritime watch organisation, he tries to manoeuvre the ship in a way that creates large waves. One skiff turns back and the other pushes its engine too far and has to return to the mother ship.

Phillips suspects they will be back, and sure enough, the following day, one of the boats returns and Muse and three of his fellow pirates board the ship. Muse promises he doesn't want to hurt anyone and just wants money, but he is disappointed to find there is only $30,000 in the safe. While two of the Somalis hold two of the senior crew members hostage in the bridge, while Muse insists that Phillips lets him search the ship. He wants to find the crew members whose location Phillips swears he doesn't know.

Things escalate very quickly, and even Phillips' brave actions aren't enough to ensure a rapid happy ending. Rather, his personal ordeal goes on for many more hours and days. It's hard to say too much more without spoiling the story for those who don't know it, but Hanks and Abdi both put in fantastic performances. The chemistry between these two very different captains is superb, coming to a head when Phillips looks Muse right in the eye and says, with utter disgust, "you are not just a fisherman." There have been some criticisms, both of Phillips' book and of his portrayal in the movie, with members of the ship's crew criticising some of his actions as being reckless. I can't really speak to that; I just felt that Captain Phillips was a highly compelling, well-plotted and nerve-wrenching piece of drama, and although there isn't much competition yet, I think Hanks should definitely get an Oscar nod.

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