Captain Phillips: Hero or Hollywood Hype?

By: Roger Aronoff
Accuracy in Media


At the movies these days is a Hollywood tale of heroic stoicism, the actions of one Captain Richard Phillips who attempts to save his ship’s crew by offering $30,000 in cash from the safe to Somalian pirates to get them to leave the hostages alone. In the film, he cries out for them to shoot him instead of anyone else. But Phillips’ deal, as portrayed by Tom Hanks, wasn’t enough for the pirates, who proceeded to hold the Captain hostage in a lifeboat.

Hanks is also a very loyal supporter of President Barack Obama. At the film’s premiere at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Hanks suggested that President Obama serve a third term—and run again in 2016. “A VIP crowd—many clad in U.S. Navy uniforms — packed an auditorium for the D.C. screening,” according to The Hill. This is little wonder given that the U.S. Navy lent significant resources to Hollywood to make the film. “The Department of Defense approved assistance in filming the ‘Captain Phillips’ script in May 2012,” states the U.S. Navy website. “The assistance consisted primarily of filming aboard USS Truxton, USS Wasp and USS Halyburton while underway in the vicinity of Norfolk, Va., June 15-30, 2012.” Chalk this up as another Hollywood feature celebrating the actions of SEAL Team 6 under Obama’s stalwart leadership—with a little help from the White House.

After all, such a movie celebrates the successes of our Navy SEALs and bringing one home for the American team. It’s too bad that this success story is tarnished by a lawsuit and the fact that, for several reasons, the incident probably shouldn’t have occurred in the first place.

Did we mention that the $30,000 in cash disappeared from the boat? Neither did the movie. “The $30,000 was never recovered,” reports the Associated Press. “As part of the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, SEALs were polygraphed, according to former and current law enforcement and military officials who spoke under the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk about the case. It’s not clear if all the SEALs who responded to the hijacking were polygraphed.”

As for the three shots, three kills myth, the AP reports that an estimated 19 rounds were fired into the bodies of the three dead pirates.

“Movies are not journalism,” director Paul Greengrass said about Captain Phillips the movie, according to the Associated Press. “Movies are not history.”

Fair enough. And it’s a good thing that director Greengrass is not attempting to make either, given the number of holes that recently appeared in his storytelling. After all, the crew has had some choice words to say about their Captain following the film’s debut. Consider that they called him—anonymously, of course—“sullen,” “self-righteous,” and “arrogant.”

The New York Post, citing unnamed crew members, has run the story that Captain Phillips the movie, supposedly a real-life retelling, is “one big lie.”

“As the film opens, Hanks, as Phillips, is seen assiduously tending to safety protocols,” reported the New York Post. “‘Let’s tighten up security!’ he orders. ‘I want everything closed, locked, even in port.’”

In fact, according to members of the crew, Phillips failed to follow anti-piracy protocols and lock the ship while they were under attack.

“The crew member said Phillips, who went on to meet Barack Obama and write a memoir, refused to cut power and lock himself and the crew below deck in line with anti-pirate protocol,” reported The Guardian. “‘He didn’t want anything to do with it, because it wasn’t his plan,’ said the crew member ‘He was real arrogant.’”

“Phillips has denied being aware of such a plan.”

“After the hijacking, 11 crew members have sued Maersk Line and the Waterman Steamship Corp. for almost $50 million, alleging ‘willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety,’” reports the Post. “Phillips is a witness for the defense.”

The willful disregard for safety charge might have emerged because Captain Phillips received numerous emails—seven in total—exhorting all ships traveling in the area to move offshore by 600 miles. The Maersk Alabama was traveling approximately 235 miles, or less than half that, offshore. “Unlike in the movie, Phillips didn’t hide the surrounding hijackings from his wife, Andrea, according to the book,” reports the website Slate. In other words, he considered them significant enough to mention to his wife but not significant enough to exercise caution with his ship.

According to Drew Griffin, with CNN, “Asked why he didn’t move further offshore, Phillips testifies, I don’t believe 600 miles would make you safe. I didn’t believe 1,200 miles would make you safe. As I told the crew it would be a matter of when, not if. So we were always in this area. So it didn’t, to me, lessen any potential.”

In contrast, the Alabama lawsuit alleges that “Defendants [including Phillips] showed a willful, wanton and conscious disregard for the safety of Plaintiffs and other officers and crew of the Maersk Alabama and did so primarily for financial gain.”

But, according to the Post, the film leaves little doubt as to which side of the argument it stands on.

“In the film, Hanks tells his crew—depicted as lazy coffee guzzlers who fall back on the security of their union-protected employment—that their job is to get the cargo ship from Point A to Point B in the shortest, cheapest time possible,” reports the New York Post (emphasis added). So the film wants us to believe that the union-based crew is lazy, and that the ship’s owners don’t care about the safety of their crew?

The lawyer for the crew members characterizes them differently. “The brave crewmembers of the Maersk Alabama were terrorized. But they fought back against the pirates, even though their only weapons were pipes and spoons and makeshift items while the pirates had machine guns,” said attorney Brian Beckom in a recent press release.

Other inaccuracies plague the film. “According to this crew member, during the first attack, as two pirate boats came into view, clearly chasing them, Phillips was putting the crew through a fire drill,” reports the New York Post. “In the film, it’s a security drill.”

And, according to crew members, there were two attacks, not one—as depicted in the film.

“‘If you’re gonna shoot somebody, shoot me!’ Hanks pleads in the film,” according to the Post. “It didn’t go down like that, say several crew members: The pirates just reneged on the deal [for the money], grabbing their guy and making off with Phillips in a Maersk lifeboat.”

Even Phillips, at this point, demurs and says that the film goes too far in depicting his “heroism.” “But Phillips says that he never meant to sacrifice himself for the crew,” reported Slate.

But you won’t hear the crew members vocally—by name, at least—objecting to other details. “Sony paid most of the men, although some as little as $5,000, and forced them to sign nondisclosure agreements so that they couldn’t speak out against the actual events once the movie had opened,” reports Moviefone. And, according to Beckom’s press release, “However, Maersk, Waterman, and Richard Phillips have all filed motions to gag the crew’s lawyers and hidden sworn testimony and official documents from the public eye.”

Another question, perhaps better asked by a media all too willing to give President Obama his day in the spotlight on this one, is whether U.S. military and diplomatic efforts could have stemmed the tide of Somali pirate action before the incident with Maersk Alabama. “There is no such country as Somalia,” wrote Edward Cline back in 2011. “It is a region of anarchy with no true government, and one to which the U.S, incredibly, is paying to simply exist, with no power to punish the pirates.”

And, suggested Max Boot for Foreign Affairs magazine in 2009, “This question of how to try and process pirates is closely related to the problem of how to deal with terrorists, another species of international outlaw.” But, “With the detention policies of former U.S. President George W. Bush generating endless adverse publicity, neither the Obama administration nor any other Western government is eager to hold suspected pirates or terrorists.” 2009 was the same year that the Global War on Terror was renamed “Overseas Contingency Operation.”

“Even if bringing law and order to Somalia is beyond the will of the international community, it still should be possible to curb the pirate menace through military and legal initiatives that stop short of actual occupation,” writes Boot. But what about the fact that these pirates often are Islamist thugs, or funding Islamist thugs? “All Somali pirates are Muslims,” noted Cline in 2011. “Pirates in Haradheere agreed last week to hand al Shabaab insurgents a 20 percent cut of ransoms but a deep distrust prevails between the two sides,” reported Reuters that year. How inconvenient, then, that these pirates are on the loose, yet may pay tribute to Islamist leaders in their own countries. “In addition, many of the proceeds from this modern-day piracy may wind up underwriting an extreme Islamist movement,” asserted Boot.

In fact, al Shabaab is the al-Qaeda linked group responsible for the terrorist act in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya last month, killing 67 people and wounding more than 175.

If one is not aware of the controversies surrounding this film, and the details left out, it is gripping at times, and a good show of American force.

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and can be contacted at View the complete archives from Roger Aronoff.


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2 thoughts on “Captain Phillips: Hero or Hollywood Hype?

  1. Somehow you managed to work President Obama into this article, yet the film has nothing to do with the presidency. Now that’s journalism!

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