After all, it is Tom Hanks who plays Captain Phillips, and he gives one heck of a performance, which is not surprising. It is however, the amazing performance by Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, and Faysal Ahmed, in the role of Somali pirates, that takes the viewers by surprise. Abdi’s acting as lead pirate, is simply superb. Not knowing how to swim, Abdi learned to balance unstable pirate skiff in choppy waters and he learned to climb a ladder aboard a swaying ship. Their incredible lean physique made these actors originally from Somalia, perfect for the role as the Somali pirates. Great kudos to the casting director, Francine Maisler. The four young men traveled to Malta, where they got lessons in handling the guns and the boats. These four actors did not meet Tom Hanks until the moment they came aboard the ship. “When they blew that door open and came in screaming at us, I saw four of the skinniest, scariest human beings on the planet and the hair did stand up on the back of our heads”, says Hanks.
The movie directed by Paul Greengrass is based on the true story of Captain Phillips (screenplay by Billy Ray), during seizure of his cargo ship Mersk Alabama, in 2009. The large cargo ship was sailing several hundred miles off the coast of Somalia, toward Mombasa, Kenya. When the pirates were spotted, the ship took protective measures but the pirates still managed to board the ship and eventually, nab a hostage, Captain Rich Phillips. The five day drama on the high seas was covered by cable news and riveted the nation. US counter-terrorism vessel, hostage negotiators and the Navy SEALS were brought in and the drama concluded with 3 extremely well coordinated US snipers taking down the 3 pirates, at the same exact moment.
A little background on the rise of Somalian piracy
Nearly 30,000 tankers and cargo vessels navigate these waters annually. One 2010 study estimated that on account of piracy, it has cost between $7 billion and $12 billion in annual losses, on the global economy in extra insurance premiums, more robust security measures, and ransom money. In 2009 and 2010, 26 ships were ransomed for an average of $4.9 million each. But this would only tell one side of the story.
Here’s the other side. When I grew up in Ethiopia, my father (from whom I learned much about the world) talked about the neighboring Somalia with capital Mogadishu, to be a fairly important center for commerce, at one time. My father first started his business in Yemen and then traveled to Djibouti. From there he traveled on ponies to Ethiopia and settled in Dire Dawa and later in Addis Ababa and actively traded with and traveled to the neighboring regions. Somalia was under Italian occupancy, which ended in 1940, at which point, Northern Somalia remained a protectorate and Southern Somalia came under UN Trusteeship. In 1960, the two regions were united to form independent SomaliRepublic, under a civilian government. However, in 1991, President Barre’s government collapsed and Somalia lapsed into decades long civil war. The country has no recognized rule of law, has one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the world, has no prospect of doing better, disillusionment reigns supreme, and the dumping of the toxic waste has severely constrained the ability of the local fishermen to earn a living. Amidst the bleakness of Somali existence, was born the extreme radicalized group Al Shabab (sponsor of terrorist plots all over the world and currently implicated in the Kenyan mall attack). One bright ray of hope for Somalia had been its location, on the horn of Africa. Bordered by Ethiopia to the west, Djibouti to the northwest, the Gulf of Aden to the north, the Indian Ocean to the East, and Kenya to the southwest, Somalia has the longest coastline on the mainland. Somalia was used and abused by colonial powers for their own national interests, and it now uses its location to assert its own brand of power. Cargo ships have to navigate through there and in the absence of trade, commerce, and viable fishing opportunities, piracy has quickly become lucrative. Somalian piracy has elevated localized lawlessness to an international level threat. Eliminating it will perhaps require understanding of the broader issues of livelihood, education, stability, and rule of law, in Somalia.
As the film subtly demonstrates, the pirates themselves are often victims of the circumstances, surviving in conditions of starvation, deprived of their livelihood, and slaves to kath addiction, and to the war lords who control their lives and livelihoods, who pump the money into buying more ammunition, greater propaganda and planning terror attacks on the sea and land. “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people”, Captain Phillips says to pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and Muse responds, “Maybe in America”. While it is a story about good versus evil and terrorism is always bad and is nice to see that bad looses in this fight through courageous, brilliant maneuvers; at a deeper level, without becoming preachy, the film subtly raises some thought-provoking issues about good and evil, choices and responsibility. I give it a 4.9 score on a scale going from 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent.