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LFF review: Captain Phillips

held at gunpoint


The 57th BFI London Film Festival opened with this belter of a thriller, based on the real-life hijacking of a US container ship by Somali pirates in 2009.

Tom Hanks stars as Captain Richard Phillips, an American, whose job it is to steer the MV Maersk Alabama through the danger-filled Somali Basin to mombasa, Kenya.

(watch out for spoilers below)

Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) delivers an unpredictable thriller, based upon Captain Phillips' book, A Captain's Duty. Phillips and his opposite number, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (Barkhad Abdi, a Minnesotan cab driver who gives a chilling, but still sympathetic, performance in his first acting role) each have a task: to manage their crews and to get the supplies on board the Alabama (including aid for Somalia and its neighbouring countries) to their rightful destination. For Phillips, that's Mombasa, as contracted; for Muse, that's his homeland, and, ultimately, shady warlords who hold him and his poverty-stricken peers between a rock and a hard place. 

pirates binoculars

From the moment that another blip appears on the Alabama's radar, the tension builds. We've already seen the Somali fishermen-slash-pirates being rounded up by their bosses, and forced into making their next big boat hit. The desperation of the men who are stuck in a poor, war-ravaged country is referenced throughout the film, in talk of jobs (Phillips: Surely there's something more than fishing and piracy for you guys? Muse: Not so much), in the contrast between the hulking great cargo ship and the Somalis' little rowboats and, finally, in every second of the last third of the film, set inside a claustrophobically-tiny rescue boat, upon which the pirates have fled the Alabama - with Captain Phillips as hostage.

rescue boat

From the moment the pirates board the ship to the dramatic denoument involving the US Navy, it's impossible to take your eyes away from the screen. And in the slightly calmer, sometimes even warmish, exchanges between the two captains, we come to understand a little more about how such a desperate situation transpires. The nothing-to-lose despair of the pirates underscores their ability - if not uniform willingness - to take their little boat onwards to the very end of the story, always hoping that there they will find the ransom, without which they cannot safely return home.

The 57th BFI London Film Festival runs 9th-20th October