- - Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks, is the taut, ripped-from-the-headlines tale of the 2009 hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama and kidnapping of its captain, Richard Phillips, by Somali pirates.

The tense docudrama, which has generated early award buzz for Mr. Hanks‘ performance in the title role, tries to understand the motivations of the violent Somali marauders who seized control of Captain Phillips‘ vessel in the pirate-infested waters 240 miles off the coast of Somalia and took him hostage.

But in trying to explain the pirates, does the film cross over into excusing them?

Not according to Mr. Hanks.

“It’s an examining of motivations,” the actor said in an interview last week with The Washington Times, when asked how an artist walks that fine line between explanatory and exculpatory storytelling.

“I don’t think there’s any editorial aspect that goes into it,” said the two-time Oscar winner, his voice drowning out the other interviewees holding court at the Georgetown Four Seasons. “It becomes more empirical — we as the audience have a broader understanding of the desperation behind this desperate act.”

In one of the trailers for “Captain Phillips,” the title character says to the icily violent pirate ringleader Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), “There’s got to be something other than kidnapping people.”

“Maybe in America,” Muse replies, sadly.

Combined with the pathetic, sympathetically skeletal appearance of the pirates, it’s enough to set off warning bells. Wary viewers may hear warning signals of “moral equivalence.”

Mr. Hanks and the film’s director, Paul Greengrass, seemed to have anticipated such criticism — and readied a defense.

“Films aren’t journalism. They’re not history. But they can convey truths, some truths,” said Mr. Greengrass, who directed the shatteringly realistic 9/11 drama “United 93” (2006). “I think you can, if you’re lucky, capture some of the layers of it. The lack of easy answers.”

While “Captain Phillips” hews closely to the facts of the 2009 hijacking, it aims to tell more than a simple story about cartoonish good guys and bad guys. It seeks instead to tell a story of two captains, each with his own set of rational reasons for doing what he is doing.

Although the pirates’ actions are rational, they are no less brutal: Phillips is beaten, his crew members threatened with execution and his life nearly extinguished. Phillips‘ ordeal is representative of what is endured by those who are taken hostage by pirates. According to production notes for the film, “about 2,000 hostages were taken by pirates” from 2009 to 2012.

Sixty-two hostages have died during that time.

Richard Phillips never thought, ‘Hey, they were nice guys that got a bum deal,’” said Mr. Hanks, who interviewed the real-life captain before the filming.

Mr. Abdi, a Somalian making his acting debut in the film as the chillingly fearless Muse, brings a hard-won alternate perspective to the pirates’ plight.

“I was born in Somalia,” said the young actor. “By the time I was 6, war had begun. And there was killing, there was guns everywhere. At night we would sleep to the sounds of guns — my brother and me would name the guns based on the sound of it.

“There are a lot of kids that don’t have no school. Don’t know what’s going on. Don’t have nothing. No job. No hope. Nothing. For that, I understand and feel compassion.”

But compassion does not translate into justification, said Mr. Abdi. “What’s this [hijacking] to him? It is the chance of a lifetime. You know? It’s a crime, I understand that,” he said, raising his hands as if to head off argument. “I’m not excusing him. Me, personally, I believe there’s other ways he could have got by.”

The film itself suggests that is not necessarily the case. Globalization is blamed for overfishing of the waters off of Somalia’s coast. This in turn has impoverished the men who once made their livings off of those waters, leaving them a choice between starvation and piracy.

The life of a Somali pirate sketched out by Mr. Greengrass and his actors is hardly pleasant. Warlords effectively run the nation, sending malnourished young men out in rickety skiffs to attack massive container ships. Whatever money they earn is sent back to the men in charge.

“Just examining the grander structure of piracy with these criminal bosses that come into it — that’s almost recognizable as our own organized crime,” said Mr. Hanks. “We get that.”

As with films about the mafia, the audience is encouraged to understand, but not condone, the behavior of the Somali pirates in “Captain Phillips.”

“I just had to show people emotionally what it meant to him to get there,” Mr. Abdi says of Muse.

For the director, showing people those emotions while relaying the essence of what occurred is the goal of every decent filmmaker.

“When you can balance regard for the facts and a desire to be truthful about the experience, you get the truths of cinema,” said Mr. Greengrass. “They are different from journalism, but they are profound nonetheless.”

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