PolitiChick Lydia’s Oscar-Nominated Film Critiques: Captain Phillips (LOL!)

Captain Phillips PosterPirates and Ships and Guns? OH MY!

Hair-raising, nail-biting, unbearably tense, comical….whoops, comical?

Captain Phillips, a movie starring Tom Hanks, recently received six Oscar nominations, although Mr. Hanks was shunned for his performance. The movie is based on the real-life events surrounding the hijacking of captain Richard Phillips by Somali pirates on a Maersk container ship.  The film focuses on the hostage taking and the Captain Phillips’ subsequent rescue by Navy Seals in 2009.

As in all things Oscar, I try to watch as many nominated movies as possible (excluding the orgy-filled, raunchy, should be rated NC17, glorification of greed known as “The Wolf of Wall Street” –but that’s beside the point). I did see Captain Phillips recently and I laughed out loud, although I doubt that was the intended response. Before you assume that I find kidnapping for ransom, piracy, or our heroic Navy Seals funny, let me assure you that that is not the case. What I did find ludicrous was the idea of cargo ships traveling the pirate-infested waters of the Horn of Africa trade route-completely unarmed. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, continue reading anyway.)

Let me give you a quick synopsis of the “security measures” depicted that I found so laughable.  As two skiffs, each occupied by four Somalis, approached the Maersk Alabama, did crewmembers grab guns to prevent the pirates from climbing aboard and commandeering the ship? Nope. Besides calling for help, the crew turned on fire hoses that would “sink” the boats of the attackers, used steering maneuvers to cause large waves that would disable the pirates’ small boat engines, and held a bogus call to “mislead” the pirates about the imminent arrival of help. Finally, I watched with bated breath as Captain Phillips ran to the safe, quickly punched in a combination, pulled out a large canister, and removed something from inside. I thought, “Of course, he’s got a gun.  He’s going to blow them out of the water!”  Uh, no. He did fire two flares however (completely missing his targets, I might add).

I admit; these defense methods worked. Once. The pirates, four hyped-up khat chewing heavily armed young men, came back–minus the other boat.  As I continued to watch the ensuing panic as the four boarded the ship, I thought up new lyrics to the song “If I Only Had a Heart” from The Wizard of Oz:

If He Only Had A Gun

When a man’s on a gunless kettle

He should really be on his mettle

And yet he’s going to be outdone.

Just because he’s presumin’

That he’s dealing with a human-

If he only had a gun.” –

The crew’s bravery when they captured the “pirate leader” in the engine room is undeniable, and bravo to the Navy Seals that rescued Captain Phillips from his ordeal after being taken hostage.

Being naturally inquisitive, I wanted to know why a container ship carrying millions of dollars of cargo would be completely unarmed while traveling waters known to be rife with danger, and it seems Tom Hanks wondered the same thing. In an excerpt from an interview with the Wall Street Journal [all emphasis mine]:

“…Paul Greengrass [director] has said he wanted people to understand the position of the pirates, their humanity. Are you concerned some people may find this sympathy misplaced?

(Tom Hanks) I gave up trying to figure out what’s going to happen with anybody’s reaction. It’s always across the board. On the one hand, there’s almost a pro-gun argument in the film, you know?   (Side note:  Yep, even though I imagine Tom Hanks hated to say it out loud.)

Yes, I kept thinking how astonishing it was that the ship was unarmed in those dangerous waters.

(Tom Hanks) I asked Richard Phillips, “What’s the deal there? How come no guns?” And first off, there are parts of international law saying you can’t ship guns into a foreign port. And there’s this other concept. You’ve got 25 guys who argue a lot. You might not want them to be packing heat in their sea bags…”

Alas, although I’m naturally inquisitive, I’m also naturally lazy so I didn’t want to spend hours researching International Maritime Law and Richard Phillips’s explanation as to why guns are banned on container ships.  My solution? I read the comments after the WSJ article and discovered a treasure trove of information.

One commentator, Markus Kufus (who, by the way, turns out to be a very knowledgeable writer) tried  [in his own words] ‘to pick a fight’ with Tom Hanks:

“Sorry to argue with you, Mr. Hanks, but that’s not exactly how it is in the High Risk Area of the Indian Ocean. There are ways, legal ways, to deal with the arrival of firearms into an East African port. Further, you don’t arm the civilian crew; you hire a team of professional, contracted maritime-security guards. It simply comes down to this: Somebody in 2009 didn’t want to spend a few thousand dollars a day to fully protect the Maersk Alabama against a known menace of Somali piracy. So, who do I think I am to argue with the man who saved Private Ryan and brought Apollo 13 back to earth? I am ex-military and have worked as an armed security guard aboard a cargo ship in transit in and out of Mombasa, Kenya. Humbly offered is my first-person article, “Over My Dead Body.”

In his article, Kufus describes the tactical measures used by pirates:

“…Out here in the internationally declared “High Risk Area” (HRA) there are real bogeymen. They are skinny, desperate thugs with Soviet/Russian-made Kalashnikov automatic rifles, PKM machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. They live aboard crowded “mother ships” adrift in the shipping lanes or hiding around small islands, avoiding naval frigates and coastal-patrol boats, waiting to ambush undefended merchant vessels and hijack them for multimillion-dollar ransoms. Their attack skiffs, 20- to 25-foot motorboats, carry narrow ladders with hooks on the top for boarding cargo vessels—like ours. The skiffs usually carry three to six pirates apiece…” He also writes, “…Depending on whose figures you believed, fewer than half of the hundreds of merchant ships making the thousands of transits each year in and around the Indian Ocean employ armed security guards. It is from this undefended majority of vessels the Somali pirates want to take their prey…”

In another article entitled “The Challenge Of Survival As A Pirate Hostage”, Kufus notes, “…Merchant ships with armed security teams never have been hijacked in the High Risk Area (HRA)…”

There are a myriad of conversation-starting topics that can be harvested for discussion from this movie:  the policies of globalization, the socio-economic conditions of a country where young thugs engage in kidnapping and piracy, the bravery and skill of our American forces, the controversy surrounding the factual depiction of Richard Phillips in the movie, and the ensuing lawsuit brought by the ship’s crew because of lax security measures. Then, there is the gun-banning issue aboard ships, with its own complexities that run the gamut of explanations- from various port rules regarding guns to the costs of insurance coverage to crew dynamics. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but to me there really is a simple solution to piracy:  either give ship crews a way to protect themselves or hire someone who will.

“When a man’s on a gunless kettle

He should really be on his mettle

And yet he’s going to be outdone.

Just because he’s presumin’

That he’s dealing with a human-

If he only had a gun.”


Lydia Susanne has conducted exclusive interviews with Israeli author Lela Gilbert, activist and lead singer of KANSAS John Elefonte, Todd Daniels of International Christian Concern, and Bob Fu of China Aid, among other notable subjects for PolitiChicks.com.

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