Controversial 'Captain Phillips' Real-Life Captain Makes This Heroic Story a Lie

Captain PhillipsI saw Captain Phillips this weekend, and I thought it was fantastic. For a movie focused on one fairly well-documented incident -- I mean, it's not like you don't know how the story ends -- the film remains thrillingly well-paced throughout, with plenty of legitimately tense moments. Tom Hanks does an amazing job in the role of the captain, elevating what could have been a formulaic role into a nuanced performance that ran the spectrum between heartbreakingly realistic stress reactions to sheer balls-out heroism.

The problem, according to the former crew of the Maersk Alabama, is that the real Capt. Richard Phillips was no hero. In fact, according to the attorney who represents the 11 crew members who have sued Maersk Lines Limited and the Waterman Steamship Corp. for almost $50 million, alleging “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety,” seeing Captain Phillips portrayed as a courageous man is too much for the crew to bear:


It is galling for them to see Captain Phillips set up as a hero. It is just horrendous, and they’re angry.

The crew's lawsuit is going to trial in Alabama in just a few weeks. In it, they claim they were steered into pirate-infested waters near the Somali coast without any real protection, blaming the shipping company for "outsourcing" the security of the Alabama to the U.S. military instead of providing basic anti-piracy prevention measures.

Several of the crew members allege that the Alabama was allowed to sail directly into pirate-infested waters despite receiving multiple warnings to avoid the area. They say they begged Phillips not to go so close to the Somali coast, but he "wouldn’t let pirates scare him."

Here are some of the accusations against Phillips made by crew members, who are remaining anonymous for legal reasons:

• Phillips ignored a detailed anti-piracy plan now used by all ships per the International Maritime Organization.

He didn’t want anything to do with it, because it wasn’t his plan. He was real arrogant.

• Phillips disregarded and did not share at least seven e-mails about increased piracy off Somalia, all requesting ships to move farther offshore by at least 600 miles.

• Phillips blew off a crew member who initially alerted him to the pirates.

I told him, ‘Captain, I’m damn sure this is pirate boat.' He laughed at me. He told me it could be a fishing boat. He walked away from me.

• During the first attack, as it became obvious two pirate boats were chasing them, Phillips was putting the crew through a fire drill (not a security drill as shown in the movie).

We said, ‘You want us to knock it off and go to our pirate stations?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, no, no, no — you’ve got to do the lifeboats drill.’ This is how screwed up he is. These are drills we need to do once a year. Two boats with pirates and he doesn’t give a shit. That’s the kind of guy he is.

• When the pirates took the ship, Phillips didn't provide orders or reassurance.

Phillips didn’t say what he wanted to do. His plan [was], when the pirates come aboard, we throw our hands in the air and say, ‘Oh, the pirates are here!’ The chief engineer said, ‘We’re going downstairs and locking ourselves in.’ One of the mates said, ‘Let’s go down. We’re on our own.’ 

• In the movie, Phillips gives himself up to the pirates. In real life, the crew says he was already a hostage (Phillips himself says the story of him giving himself up for his crew was a false narrative spread by the media): the pirates just reneged on the deal, grabbing their guy and taking Phillips into the lifeboat.

According to Chief Engineer Mike Perry,

We vowed we were going to take it to our graves, that we weren’t going to say anything. Then we hear this p.r. stuff about him giving himself up . . . and the whole crew’s like, ‘What?’ 

If events unfolded the way the crew describes, I can absolutely understand their frustration with the way Captain Phillips is depicted in the movie. Particularly when the real Phillips has been swept up in the promotional efforts for the film, appearing with Hanks on the cover of Parade magazine with the headline, "“The Making of an American Hero.”

At the same time, anyone who's interested in the full story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking shouldn't regard it as an accurate and complete picture of what happened -- despite the relatively tidy wrap-up in the film, in real life there was a lengthy criminal investigation that followed the incident. Many more than three shots were fired inside that lifeboat, $30,000 went missing, and several Navy SEALs ended up being polygraphed by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

As for the allegations that the real Captain Phillips was nothing like the man Tom Hanks brings to life on the screen, director Paul Greengrass says that in the end, he made his own narrative judgments:

Movies are not journalism. Movies are not history.

Honestly, I can see both sides of this. While it's true that Captain Phillips is Hollywood entertainment, pure and simple, plenty of audience members will forget the "based" part in "based on real events." Tom Hanks turns in such a powerful performance (especially at the very end), he's who many people will remember in association with the story … and for that, I can see why crew members are so bitter about this movie's popularity.

The film itself isn't a lie: it's an action thriller, not a documentary. But there is a slippery slope in biopics. When you stretch the truth for entertainment value, you inevitably run the risk of being criticised for deception.

What do you think about the crew's reaction to how Captain Phillips is portrayed in the movie?

Image via Sony Pictures

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