Tom Hanks, discussing his film Captain Phillips, remarked, “Certain elements were necessarily excluded from the book’s narrative. However, in terms of thematic fidelity, nothing significant was lost.” He further asserted, “Broadly speaking, the film’s portrayal is factually sound.” Is this claim justified?
Generally, yes. The film streamlines the Maersk Alabama hijacking episode, selectively excluding and modifying details while focusing intensely on the core events, as is typical of director Paul Greengrass’s style. This approach sometimes overlooks broader contextual elements. Interestingly, some of the film’s more astonishing elements are directly lifted from Richard Phillips’ detailed book, “A Captain’s Duty,” chronicling the Alabama incident.
Yet, the veracity of Phillips’ own narrative is subject to scrutiny. Numerous crew members of the Alabama, some engaged in legal action against the ship’s owners, argue that Phillips’ depiction is misleading. They allege that Phillips neglected pirate warnings and ventured perilously close to the Somali coast. Crew member ATM asserted that he warned Phillips about the pirate threat, only to be dismissed with skepticism. Phillips refutes these claims. A new documentary featuring Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, the lead hijacker portrayed in the film by Barkhad Abdi, suggests that his perspective remains untold.
Without having seen the documentary, this article mainly draws upon Phillips’ account and various news reports for information.
Prelude to the Hijacking
As depicted in the film, Phillips ignored advisories of nearby hijackings, maintaining a course 300-400 miles from the Somali coast to save time, despite warnings suggesting a 600-mile distance. Contrary to the film’s portrayal, Phillips informed his wife, Andrea, about the hijackings, as stated in his book.
The Initial Pirate Assault
The initial, unsuccessful pirate attack in Phillips’ narrative aligns closely with Greengrass’s cinematic version. However, the Alabama was not conducting a pirate drill but a “fire and boat drill” at the time of the attack.
Phillips recounts contacting the United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations (UKMTO) about a possible piracy situation, only to be advised that the approaching boats were likely just fishermen. The detail in Phillips’ account where he feigns a radio communication with the U.S. military to deter the pirates is indeed accurate.
Seizure of the Ship
The film accurately captures the pirates’ successful second attempt to board the Alabama. Despite the crew’s defensive efforts, including fire hoses and evasive maneuvers, the pirates boarded the ship, mirroring Phillips’ account.
Much of the ensuing dialogue in the film is lifted directly from Phillips’ book. Phillips’ strategies to impede the pirates, including feigning misunderstanding and covertly informing his crew, are accurately portrayed.
Hostage Situation and Negotiations
The crew’s countermeasures, including taking Muse hostage, are largely factual. However, some film details, like the glass booby trap, are not mentioned in Phillips’ book. The crew managed to negotiate an exchange of Muse for Phillips, but the pirates reneged on the deal once Phillips was on their lifeboat.
Phillips, while lauded in media reports, does not consider himself a hero, contrasting with his portrayal in the film.
Captivity in the Lifeboat
Phillips’ real-life ordeal in the lifeboat lasted about five days, much longer than the film suggests. He recounts the tense atmosphere and the pirates’ claims of being forced into piracy, paralleling the film’s narrative.
The Climactic Standoff
The final confrontation, including Muse boarding the Bainbridge for negotiations and the subsequent Navy SEAL intervention, is portrayed with substantial accuracy. The Navy SEAL snipers, part of SEAL Team Six, eliminated the pirates in a coordinated strike.
Muse, tried as an adult, received a 33-year prison sentence. His age was a contentious issue during the trial. The final scene in the film, showing Phillips in shock, was improvised. Phillips’ book briefly describes his immediate post-rescue experiences, including a conversation with President Obama and his request for a beer.
If you’re looking for a similar cinematic experience about airplane hijacking, consider watching “Hijack.” This action thriller narrates the story of a former secret agent who finds himself in a precarious situation when the commercial flight he is on gets hijacked by a group of highly skilled terrorists. In his effort to confront these hijackers, the ex-agent must rely on his old skills and experience, and collaborate with other passengers trapped on the plane to navigate this perilous ordeal.