Pirates! Cicero called them “Hostes humani generis,” “Enemies of all mankind.”
Pirates have been the scourge of the seas since ancient times. Julius Caesar was once the involuntary guest of a band of pirates.
America’s first foreign war was against the Barbary Pirates based in what is now Libya. The combined land and sea assault on the pirate capitol inspired the line of the Marine Corps Hymn, “…to the shores of Tripoli.”
Piracy on the high seas diminished when steamships became faster than sail-driven craft. Powered ships require refueling at friendly ports denied to pirates.
But piracy lingers in coastal areas where swift small boats can dart out from shore or operate from mother ships that appear to be fishing boats.
In 2009 the Maersk Alabama, under the command of Capt. Richard Phillips, was sailing out of Oman around the Horn of Africa bound for Mombasa, Kenya, with a varied cargo including a great deal of food aid for Africa. On April 8 the ship was boarded by Somali pirates operating out of the port city of Eyl. This marked the first seizure of an American flagged ship since the 19th century.
On April 12, Phillips was rescued by the U.S. Navy after Navy SEALs killed three pirates holding Phillips hostage on the ship’s lifeboat.
“Captain Phillips” is the story of the capture of the Maersk Alabama and the rescue of Phillips, played brilliantly by Tom Hanks.
Of interest to local audiences, the Somali pirates were played by actors recruited from the Somali community in the Twin Cities in an open casting call.
“Captain Phillips” is both a gripping real-life adventure story, and a character study of the difference between a civilized man and a barbarian.
The crew of the Maersk Alabama were civilian sailors, not military men. Though they had some anti-piracy training, they were hampered by maritime regulations that prevented them from carrying the minimal armament that could have repelled the pirates.
They must rely on fire hoses and what they can improvise. And improvise is what they do in the crisis, whether using their knowledge of the ship’s technology to cripple it in the water or scattering broken glass in a passageway to hinder barefoot pirates.
The crew are disciplined and used to taking orders. They have disputes, which ultimately resulted in a lawsuit filed by crew members against the shipping company alleging Phillips put them in danger.
But they settle their disputes according to maritime regulations, union rules and civil law. The captain does not stifle dissent, he listens to the men’s concerns. But ultimately the decisions are his and his alone.
The pirates are a band of brigands hastily put together on a beach.
The command authority of the pirate chief Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is tenuous at best. He and his crew spend a lot of time arguing and screaming at each other.
There is no discipline to speak of, except the rule of the strong and vicious. They are in an almost-constant state of panic. At one point Muse settles a dispute by killing a fellow-pirate with a pipe wrench.
The pirates handle firearms in a way anybody familiar with guns would regard as criminally reckless. They point them everywhere, fire them capriciously to get attention and beat captives with them. At one point Phillips asks a pirate using his rifle as a window breaker to please take the magazine out first.
There are so many cringe-making moments you expect an accidental discharge that it’s almost a relief when one happens.
This is contrasted with the fire discipline of the Navy SEALs who kill the pirates with one well-placed shot each, using thermal imaging scopes at night, firing from a ship at targets on a small boat tossed on the waves.
What is clear in the movie is that Phillips, though a captive at the mercy of the pirates is not helpless.
Phillips is an active participant in his own rescue. He prepares beforehand through drills and makes contingency plans. He is able to delay and confuse the pirates. He communicates with his men and the Navy under the noses of the pirates. And he keeps his head when they are losing theirs.
The pirates on the other hand seem driven by circumstances once their initial plan is thwarted. They have no contingency plans. Their ability to improvise is nil. They have no chain of command. Once Muse is lured off the lifeboat to negotiate there is no one capable of taking command.
“Captain Phillips” manages to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout, even though you know how it turns out.
Don’t miss it because you do know how it turns out. There’s a lot you didn’t know and a lot of food for thought.
Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.