Published On: December 17, 2013

Captain Phillips

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By B. Michael Rubin

If you’ve ever wondered what real pirates look like, as opposed to the Johnny Depp kind, you should see the new Tom Hanks film, Captain Phillips (Capitão Phillips). Not only do we watch today’s real-life pirates at work, but it’s nonstop action.

Finding an interesting action film in the theaters that doesn’t involve drugs, fast cars, naked women, or Muslim terrorists is rare. Captain Phillips is an exceptional film in that it grabs the viewer’s attention for more than two hours, and it’s also a true story.

The hero, Captain Richard Phillips, played by Tom Hanks with his usual acting self-confidence, is the captain of a container ship. Phillips is an American who makes his living piloting these mammoth cargo ships that carry most of the world’s goods and none of its passengers. While international air shipping of goods is faster, only small items get shipped by air.

Tom Hanks as Phillips

Cargo ships can carry enormous quantities, and unlike air freight, shipping costs are calculated by volume not by weight. Thus, if a family is moving to another country and wants to ship all its belongings, they rent a container on one of these ships. If a company  manufactures cars in Germany or Korea or Japan and sells them in the US or Brazil, the new cars are sent around the world on one of these container ships. Cargo ships like the one in this movie are at the heart of international commerce.

The film opens quietly as Tom Hanks immediately draws the audience into his character, a humble American living in the US who must fly to the Middle Eastern country of Oman, where he will pick up his assignment to steer a container ship out of the Persian Gulf and around the Horn of Africa to reach its destination. On the northeastern corner of Africa sits the country of Somalia, which we quickly learn is a land of lawlessness and extreme poverty, where the young, unemployed men are either fisherman or they’ve taken to piracy. Unfortunately, these are the modern version of pirates, which means automatic weapons, radar tracking, and kidnapping. Unlike the versions in Johnny Depp’s day, these Somalian pirates are not interested in stealing cash or the cars and TVs carried by the container ships.

Typical container ship

While the pirates may be desperate, they are not stupid, at least not their leaders. They know no one in poverty-stricken Somalia is going to buy a Mercedes from them, and it’s too big to transport, anyway. Instead, they’ve learned that by boarding a container ship and taking its captain and crew hostage, they can then stop the container ship in the water or reroute it to Somalia. This causes problems for the owners of the ship who must deliver the ship’s goods to the destination, in this case Kenya, to unload the containers. By holding the ship and its crew hostage, the pirates are able to demand a ransom from the ship’s owners of millions of dollars in cash.

This type of piracy in Somalia, kidnapping at sea, has been going on since the 1990s when civil war turned Somalia into a country with a weak government and no navy. Over the past decade, hundreds of ships have been victims of such hijackings. Meanwhile, the cargo ship owners have been purchasing insurance to cover these losses, and insurance companies have paid out many millions of dollars to Somalian pirates to have the crew and ships returned safely.

Somalian pirates from Captain Phillips

At the time of this actual event in April 2009, there had been six pirate seizures of vessels in the same week. The cargo ship piloted by Captain Phillips was the first American ship ever captured by Somalian pirates. The US Navy was determined to exhibit its power over the shipping rights of international waters and as the movie unfolds, we watch the hijackers attempt to evade the US ships that pursue them, and the extremely brave and intelligent Captain Phillips place his life in the hands of the pirates to save his crew.

Today, worldwide pressure on the government of Somalia by the UN Security Council has helped reduce the number of piracy incidents there. Several countries, including the US, have permanently dispatched navy ships in this area of the world to discourage the hijackings. Also, container ship owners and their insurance companies have been able to pressure governments to allow ship’s crew members to carry weapons. Some shipping companies have hired private security forces to remain on the ship during routes that pass around the Horn of Africa. This year, there have been only ten reported pirate incidents with just two hijackings. In 2009, the year this film takes place, there were more than a hundred hijackings.

The real Captain Phillips returns home on April 17, 2009. (Pictured with his daughter, Mariah.)

In addition to the nonstop true-life action of this big sea drama, there is an exceptional cast, headed by Tom Hanks. The actors who play the pirates are actual Somalians who speak in their native language in the film and had no acting experience before this film. The leader of the pirates is played by Barkhad Abdi, who was working in the US as a chauffeur when he auditioned for the role. He was born in Somalia, and his family fled during their civil war.

The film was written by veteran Hollywood screenwriter Billy Ray. Ray is no stranger to action films, having written the script for the first Hunger Games. He also turned a newspaper’s office into the site of an action drama in the screenplay State of Play. (See the CIE review.)

Captain Phillips was directed by another skilled Hollywood insider, Paul Greengrass, who directed two of the action-packed Bourne films. Greengrass was nominated for an Oscar for United 93, another real-life action/hijacking film.

It will be no surprise if Captain Phillips is nominated for a few Oscars this year, as it has already received four Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture; for Somalian Barkhad Abdi; for Tom Hanks; and for director Paul Greengrass.

Captain Phillips (Capitão Phillips)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
Writer: Billy Ray






Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.

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