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  • HANDOUT / Hopper Stone/SMPSP

    Tom Hanks stars as the title character in “Captain Phillips,” a film based on the hijacking of a U.S. container ship by Somali pirates.

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    “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty

  • Toby Talbot / The Associated Press

    Richard Phillips is the real-life ship captain played by Tom Hanks in the “Captain Phillips,” which details the 2009 hijacking of his ship by Somali pirates.

Tom Hanks anchors a stellar crew in modern-day pirate tale ‘Captain Phillips’

Published: Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, Oct. 11, 2013 - 12:06 pm

Somali-born Barkhad Abdi had come a long way to meet Tom Hanks.

Raised in Yemen and Minneapolis after his family fled Somalia’s civil war, Abdi traveled to Malta for his first film role, in “Captain Phillips.” Opening Friday, the film stars Hanks as a real-life American merchant-ship captain who in 2009 survived abduction by Somali pirates.

Abdi, a former limousine driver, makes his film debut as Muse, the lead pirate. Before shooting started, authenticity-minded British director Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) put Abdi and his fellow Somali-American actors who play the film’s pirates on a training regimen to develop their seafaring skills.

Abdi learned to swim, climb up the side of a huge container ship and stand with confidence on a fast-moving skiff like the ones real pirates use.

Helping get them through training was knowing that Hanks, who Abdi said is popular in Somalia, also had arrived in Malta.

“When we were finally done practicing, we thought, ‘Now we are going to see Tom,’” said Abdi, in San Francisco for a publicity stop with Hanks and “Phillips” director Greengrass. The novice actor is quick to offer his big smile and wears a Jordan-era Chicago Bulls cap in honor of the trio’s next destination. “We were excited.”

But Hanks, curiously, never was anywhere Abdi could see him. And he would not be until a few weeks later.

Greengrass had kept Hanks apart from the on-screen pirates to heighten tension when they did meet.

Hanks’ and Abdi’s introduction in life was also the first time they meet on screen, when the pirates confront Phillips on the bridge of the cargo ship he captains, the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama.

“The first time I ever saw Barkhad was through binoculars,” Hanks said. Abdi was on a skiff speeding toward the Alabama, played in the film by another cargo ship from the Maersk shipping line, the Alexander.

Hanks and Abdi would end up working closely together on “Captain Phillips,” an Oscar contender detailing a five-day standoff on the Indian Ocean that became an international incident. As Greengrass cultivates a fraught, claustrophobic atmosphere inside various ocean vessels, bigger themes, such as globalization and the fierce U.S. post-9/11 response to threats to its citizens, creep in as well.

Greengrass, a one-time documentarian known for the urgency of his vérité-style handheld camera work, directed two of the Matt Damon “Bourne” films. More important to “Captain Phillips,” he also shot “United 93,” for which he was nominated for a directing Academy Award.

Hanks said that before they signed on to work together, he had admired Greengrass’ work on “United 93,” a wrenching, 2006 real-time account of United flight 93, which crash-landed in Pennsylvania after being hijacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.

“As far as re-created films, with actors playing (real) people on a set, it was as important and convincing a document as I had ever seen,” Hanks said.

Dressed in a black jacket and dark jeans, Hanks, 57, looks trim and youthful in person.

The film is based on Phillips’ 2010 book “A Captain’s Duty.” In it, the longtime merchant mariner – who returned to sea after his kidnapping ordeal – discusses his career on the water and recounts the days he spent in the Alabama’s motorized lifeboat with four pirates.

Foiled in their attempts to hold the ship’s crew for ransom, the hijackers kidnapped Phillips instead and headed for Somalia, at one point reportedly demanding $2 million.

Navy ships surrounded the lifeboat during the standoff, which ended when Navy SEALs shot three of the pirates. The kidnapper on whom Muse is based had been lured onto a naval vessel before the shooting and now sits in prison.

Pirate attacks off the Somali coast were rampant at the time, but this marked the first case in 200 years of a U.S.-flagged ship being captured by pirates.

Phillips’ ordeal was reported widely in the media. But although the story’s ending is known, the events leading up to it, aboard the Maersk Alabama, are less so.

In the movie, the pirates board the ship, wielding AK-47s. They encounter only Phillips and a few crew members, because the rest of the crew is hiding below deck. Muse demands to see the rest of the ship – the more crew members he finds, the greater the ransom he can charge.

The tight confines below the ship’s deck heighten the sequence’s tension. Filming aboard the Alexander, which continued as a working ship during the shoot, also was vital to ensuring veracity, Hanks said.

In addition to Malta, “Phillips” also shot scenes off the coast of Virginia in a Navy ship that subbed for the U.S.S. Bainbridge, which first responded to the Phillips hostage crisis in the Indian Ocean.

“On the spectrum of real-life stories, I like to be on the truthful side,” said Greengrass, 58. With his long gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Greengrass looks like a 1970s sociology professor.

Greengrass was motivated to spend 60 days shooting at sea by a quest for the truth and family ties. His father is a retired merchant seaman in England.

“Part of my thought process of really wanting to do this (movie) is because it was about the sea and about me finding out about that world,” Greengrass said. He spent time at sea with his dad when he was young, Greengrass said, but not much.

“Captain Phillips,” unlike “United,” does not unfold in real time. The biggest challenge in making the film, Greengrass said, was “how to distill five days of incredibly complicated activity into a two-hour movie.” In the film, Phillips’ time in the lifeboat seems much shorter than five days.

The film follows Phillips’ story but also examines the backgrounds of the hijackers, who come from dire poverty in Somalia, which has been in chaos since military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s government collapsed in 1991.

In “Captain Phillips,” veteran hijacker Muse is big man in the skiff, but he reaps few of the millions he has stolen for the criminal syndicate that employs him.

“I wanted to take an unflinching look at what modern-day piracy is about,” Greengrass said. “It’s essentially about international organized crime.”

The pirates could not be presented as cardboard villains if the film was to succeed, Greengrass said. “These young men are violent and dangerous, and they are robbers and kidnappers ...(but) you have to give them depth and understand why they are desperate.”

In his book, Phillips does not subscribe to the Somali-pirate origin myth of fisherman forced to turn to high-seas robbery after their shores were commercially overfished. But Muse offers a similar story in the movie.

Abdi and his family were stuck in Somalia for a year after the war broke out, before his teacher father moved the family to Yemen.

Based on what he saw at that time, he can understand why pirates turn to crime, he said.

“I was lucky enough to have parents that got me out,” he said. Abdi moved to Minneapolis at 14, after his mother won a visa lottery. The three actors who co-star as pirates in “Phillips” hail from the same neighborhood in Minneapolis, home to a thriving Somali community.

Whereas Abdi consulted his own experiences for research, Hanks visited the real Phillips at his home in Vermont. Hanks said the captain told him that during the hostage standoff, he worried most about the Somali pirate who showed a hair-trigger temper.

“He was worried that hothead was going to shoot him for no reason,” Hanks said. “But there were three other guys he could interact with.”

Hanks excels at playing terrestrial heroes like Phillips, Greengrass said.

“In an era of cinematic superheroes, he plays ordinary men, and that requires a tremendous sort of discipline, because you are sort of accepting the limitations,” Greengrass said. “You don’t have superpowers. You don’t have exceptional physical capacities. You’re like everybody else. ... What (Hanks) does that’s brilliant is that he gets to the depths of humanity and compassion underneath, that huge reservoir that lies inside of all of us.”

In “Phillips,” captain and crew lack not only superpowers but weapons to combat pirates beyond high-powered water hoses.

Before the Maersk Alabama hijacking, private companies were loath to allow weapons on board, partly, Greengrass said, because of the danger of a sailor pulling a gun during a card game.

But after the Alabama was hijacked, Maersk and other companies hired armed guards in danger zones.

The new security measures appear to have deterred piracy somewhat.

The Associated Press, citing statistics from the International Maritime Bureau, reported in May that hijackings in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden dropped from 47 in 2010 to 14 in 2012.

Phillips has seen and liked the film, Greengrass said. Another test comes next week when Greengrass’ father, the longtime British merchant seaman, sees it.

Greengrass invited his father to accompany him to a London awards ceremony at which the director was being honored. Greengrass dedicated the award to his dad, whose career also inspired his speech.

“I said, ‘My dad was at sea all his life, and as I have become older, I realized that what we do in our business is quite close to seafaring,’” Greengrass recalled. “‘We have a crew, and we have a map – called a script – and then we journey off, and your job is to get the cargo to other side, through the weather and unforeseen hazards.’”

When he returned to his chair, Greengrass said his father asked him “What was that all about?” Filmmaking and seafaring have nothing in common, his father informed him.

“(But) that’s a seafarer for you – nobody does a proper job unless they go to sea.”


Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

Read more articles by Carla Meyer



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