SPECIAL = “Captain Phillips”: Fact or Fiction?

Image“Films aren’t journalism. And they’re not history.  But I really believe that films can contain some truths. They can tell you what it was like to be there.  Or something what it was like to be there. Something off what the experience was like. It can give you a clear sense of character, it can give you a sense of the collisions of an event, it can suggest layers and depths and meanings alongside a sort of simple story that drives you on.  Something of the forces in play. Something of the complexities and dangers in the world.”

– Paul Greenglass

The above is a sort of conglomeration of the views of Paul Greenglass, the Director of the recent hit film, “Captain Phillips”. The film tells the story of the taking of a U.S.-flagged Cargo ship the “Maersk Alabama” by Somali pirates in April of 2009.  It follows the pirates subsequent kidnapping of the Alabama’s Captain Richard Phillips for five days aboard the Alabama’s lifeboat, and his eventual rescue by the U.S. Navy. The screenplay was based on thee book which Captain Phillips later wrote about the experience: “A Captain’s Duty”.

 Does “Captain Phillips” Get the Facts Right?

Well, sorry to answer like this, but yes and no.  Yes, the film gets the overall view of the events right, and most of the details are correct, so far as I can tell. But there are certain details which some members of the crew have pointed out which are at sharp variance with the films heroic depiction of Captain Phillips.  Mind, this is based purely on my one viewing of the film last Friday, and my review of the facts as found online, and within the pages of the Captain’s book of which I have only had the chance to scan the surface.  But if subsequent closer viewing of the film, the available facts, or a full reading of the book in the days ahead should alter my conclusions herein laid before you, rest assured. I shall be back on this posting to say so.

Some Crew Members: Phillips was no hero.

The film depicts Captain Phillips as played by Tom Hanks as being a fairly old-school Captain, wanting every- thing secured, and the various safety drills practiced by the book. Also he seems to have a crew that is relaxing on coffee breaks, and sticking to the letter of their Union contracts. In an article published Oct. 13 in the New York Post some members of the actual crew take sharp issue with this, saying that the real Captain Phillips (pictured above with Tom Hanks) was a sullen, arrogant man. They say they implored Phillips to keep the Alabama further from the Somali Coast;  600 miles as called for by safety protocols. But that Phillips arrogantly refused, insisting on cruising her at 250 miles off the coast which was known to be host to numerous pirate bands. Phillips has acknowledged in Court Depositions ignoring the warnings: “I don’t believe 600 mile would make you safe.  I didn’t believe 1200 miles would make you safe.  As I told the crew, it would be a matter of when, not if… We were always in this area.”  Given this, these crewmen said that they didn’t know whether to fear the Pirates or the Captain more.  

“If you’re going to shoot somebody, shoot me!!”

Further these crewmen say that Chief Engineer Mike Perry was the real hero.  He lead the rest of the crew to lock-down below decks, disabled most of the ship’s systems and attacked the pirate leader, enabling his use as a bargaining-chip to get Phillips back. But while the Chief’s time on camera is limited, these details are all faithfully depicted in the film.  At one point Phillips is shown saying to the pirates who were then threatening to kill one of his men: “If you’re going to shoot somebody, shoot me!”   That’s not what happened

they say. And that may very well be so.. the line may have been fabricated.  But the fact that Capt. Phillips wound up on the Alabama’s lifeboat with the pirates was not Phillips giving himself up for the crew, but a botched exchange, they say. But that is exactly the account Phillips himself gave: he went into the lifeboat to show them how it worked and they just made him stay. And that was what the film showed. So this part of the film did get it right.

The Glass, the Lifeboat, and the Escape Attempt

There are some other smaller details which the film didn’t get right.  All of the pirates were wearing sandals, so there was no glass laid as a booby trap for one of the pirates.  The film could not go into all of the details which Phillips gives in his book, such as the fact that the floor of the lifeboat became so hot that he could not rest his bare feet upon it.  Throughout what I’ve read of the

book, he refers to them as “the leader”“Tall guy” and “young crazy-eyed guy” simply “young guy”.  He actually learned only one of their names while he was held by them: Musso.  They in turn refer to him in the film as “Irish”, because early on he describes himself as being of Irish descent.  And the attempt he makes at escape was not, according to Phillips when he asked to urinate in the ocean, and then pushed one of the pirates aside. He just he says made a break for it, and pushed past his captors. Also, Phillips says that he did not attempt to write to his family while with the pirates, although he certainly thought of them throughout his ordeal.

In Sum….

The film mostly hits the mark.  Taking our cue from Greenglass’s own formulation, it was neither journalism, nor history. But it does convey very powerfully a sense of what it was like to be there. No, not all of the details are correct. Those crewmen 

may have had their safety endangered by Phillip’s reckless cruising too close to the Somalian coast.  He may have been sullen and arrogant. The line about “shoot me!” may have been made up for dramatic reasons.  But in the end, Captain Phillips more than payed for his mistakes by suffering through five days of being beaten and threatened by these pirates. And he did keep the pirates away from his crew.  Yes they did a good deal of that on their own part.  But Phillips did execute his primary job: he kept his crew safe.  None of them were killed. In the end, he fulfilled a Captain’s duty.  



by Captain Richard Phillips, with Stephan Telty, Hyperion, New York, 2010.






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