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19/12/2013 | ''Captain Phillips'' reminds of the need for all hands onboard in maritime security

Martin Edwin Andersen

The 2009 hijacking off the coast of Somalia of the U.S. cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama and the rescue of its skipper, Captain Phillips, by Navy SEALS serves as the catalyst a la Hollywood for far-greater public understanding about modern maritime piracy and the threats it poses to international commerce. Its myriad facets of people’s behavior under extreme pressure buttress a story line not soon to be forgotten.

 

“Captain Phillips” retells what happened when Somali pirates’ unsuccessful bid to hold hostage the entire crew resulted in Phillips being seized and held in a lifeboat for several days until maritime commando sharpshooters came to the rescue. Interspersed in the unfolding drama are complaints by the crew that no armed guards traveled with them, and that they even lacked firearms to protect themselves while military help was nowhere on the horizon.

Focusing on the hair-raising interplay between the Alabama’s Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and pirate leader Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the artistic dramatization nimbly offers a narrative that commands thoughtful reflection about what “courage under fire” really means.

The result of two decades of internal conflict in Somalia, piracy in the Gulf of Aden was beginning to focus international attention on the socio-political emergence of the maritime marauders. The bleak circumstances faced by local fishermen made these easy targets for warlords seeking impoverished and unblinking vassals to carry out the attacks on the high seas.

Some 80 documented attacks on high seas in 2009 alone brought in their wake emergency discussions on ransoms in corporate boardrooms, soaring insurance costs for foreign vessels at a choke point of world shipping, and the tragic fate of far too many seafarers—often from a handful of developing countries.

 
From the very beginning of “Captain Philips,” director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy” [2004] and “The Bourne Ultimatum” [2007]) offers a gritty view of frequently monotonous life at sea and how the sometimes-dull ship routines can change in minutes with the appearance of pirates on the horizon, denizens whose menacing unpredictability is often fueled in part by drugs.

The overwhelmingly positive reviews of the “Captain Phillips” tend to focus on the acting role by Tom Hanks, whose career—like that of James Stewart and Henry Fonda before him—has helped Hollywood retain a claim to public interest in an industry frequently criticized for letting narrative fantasy reign in both history and current events.

It was Hanks who won an Oscar in 1994 for “Philadelphia,” with its focus on AIDS—a subject still considered taboo in many circles. It was his fictional “Forrest Gump” (1994) character that reminded post-Vietnam audiences of the gratitude owned to military veterans. And, on Veteran’s Day 1999, Hanks received the Distinguished Public Service Award, the U. S. Navy's highest civilian honor, for his work in the unflinchingly realistic movie “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) about the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II.

In “Captain Phillips,” Hanks finds his acting ably supported by Abdi and three of the Somali native’s friends: Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali and Barkhad Abdirahman. "Barkhad just had a great charisma and a sense of menace," Greengrass told the Los Angeles Times as “Captain Phillips” headed for theaters in the United States. "But also something sort of different, some sort of humanity in there too. You feel him in all his violence but also his desperation, and that's good."

On screen, Muse faces off with Hanks as forces beyond their control shared with them center stage during April 8-12, 2009 hijacking and captivity.

Asked by Hanks why, if one hijacking means millions of dollars in ransom, they nonetheless seek new targets, one pirate flatly observes: “We all got bosses.”

The focus as well of a recent World Bank/Interpol/UN study, “Pirate Trails: Tracking the Illicit Financial Flows from Piracy off the Horn of Africa,” the movie helps bring to center stage the fact that pirate financiers collect 30 to 50 percent of total ransom. Their risk-taking “foot soldiers” typically receive just 1 to 2.5 percent of average ransom payments. At the same time, carefully crafted emotional and sentimental sallies also help keep those vassals in line.

While providing useful context, however, “Captain Phillips” does not dwell on possible political science or sociology lessons. Its storytelling focuses first, foremost and very effectively on what happened when the Maersk Alabama was attacked and what one person, perhaps an unlikely hero, did to save his crew.


As of this writing, a judge in the state of Alabama delayed a trial set to open this week; the lawsuit brought by Maersk Alabama crew members against Maersk and another shipping company claims the vessel sailed too close to the Somali coast when it was boarded by pirates. They point out that at the time maritime warnings stressed commercial and recreational ships should remain at least 600 miles away, and claim the Alabama was just 250 miles away when attacked.

Nine crew members who filed the lawsuit say the pirate boarding caused them physical and emotional injuries, some being held at gunpoint with Phillips and others hiding in the Alabama’s engine room. The captain himself is not being sued, but supporters of angry seafarers have repeated claimed that Phillips himself was no hero, his conduct before the pirate boarding negligently endangering their lives.

At an October 10th press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the day before the movie was released, Phillips demurred when I asked if he considered himself to be a hero—a title willingly offered by others involved in the real-life drama. “I don’t see myself as a hero.”

Asked about whether he should have heeded the maritime advisories to stay well away from Somalia, he pointed out that advisories are just that--warnings.  “We fight [piracy] all over the globe. Nigeria’s probably worse these days than Somalia ever was.”

“We live in a litigious society and everyone’s welcome to their own views,” he added, saying that he thought Maersk “did a great job.”

Ask what he thought of the celluloid version of his personal odyssey, Phillips responded that, while he thought the film “did a good job of portraying the main points … the actual thing was a lot worse because they can’t show everything that went on.”

Perhaps a sequel to “Captain Phillips” could show now many pirate victims are tortured while held captive two or more years, left largely abandoned and without hope of naval rescue, as their relatives are left alone to fight for their liberation.

Martin Edwin Andersen is the former editor-in-chief of Piracy Daily.

Piracy Daily (Estados Unidos)

 


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