‘Captain Phillips’ and ‘A Hijacking’: Pirates and heroes

Pirates have never actually gone away and even as Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” (the ride and not the movie series) was delighting and frightening generations of children, pirates were still hijacking ships. They are still hijacking ships as we see in “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking.”

The Pirates of the Caribbean theme ride opened in 1967. The movie series began in 2003. Modern pirates expanded to include airplanes and cars. The French very clearly identify airplane hijackers with pirates, “pirate de l’air.”  Between 1958 and 1967 there were 48 aircraft hijackings.

Modern definitions of piracy include boarding, extortion, hostage taking, kidnapping for ransom, murder, robbery, sabotage that results in a ship sinking, seizure of items or a ship and intentional shipwrecking.

We’d like to imagine the pirates as colorful as Jack Sparrow, but modern pirates are often not: They are desperate people with a demonstrated willingness to kill.  In 1985, the MS Achille Lauro, a cruise ship, was hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Front and killed Jewish-American Leon Klinghoffer who was confined to his wheelchair. Klinghoffer was 69, retired and on the cruise with his wife to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary.

In the last decade, there has been an increase of piracy off the coast of Somalia.  The 2013 movie “Captain Phillips” concerns an actual event where the captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, Richard Phillips, was taken hostage by Somani pirates in 2009.  Directed by Paul Greengrass, the movie stars Tom Hanks and first-time actor Barkhad Abdi and has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. The movie is based on Richard Phillips’ book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea.”

Americans love heroes; we created the superhero genre in comic books. The movie is about Captain Phillips as a hero although according to a report by CNN, Captain Phillips went against advisories to steer 600 miles away from the Somali coast. According to logs, his ship was intercepted 300 miles off the coast. The reason for this apparently cost-cutting.

An article in the New York Post tells a similar story: Captain Phillips in real life was arrogant and reckless.  Both articles suggest that heroism should have been looked for elsewhere.

While “Captain Phillips” is a fictional heroic account of an actual event, the 2012 Danish thriller is a more ethically and morally murky fictional account of the hijacking of a Danish ship.  There are no heroes in this movie written and directed by Tobias Lindholm. Instead of the captain, the camera focuses on the ship cook, Mikkel (Johan  Philip Asbaek) of the MV Rozen and the CEO of the company that owns the ship, Peter (Soren Malling).

Peter is our captain, the captain of a company and the man the ship’s captain would take orders from. Mikkel takes orders from everyone.  While we know that Captain Phillips will survive and write a book, we have no idea of Mikkel will survive. Captain Phillips keeps our attention by trying to get us to empathize with the Somali pirates, particularly the younger one  (Barkhad Abdirahman) for whom this is a first-time mission.

Yet, for the most part, the reviews of this film haven’t bothered to mention the three surviving pirates by name except for Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) who becomes the captain, even if he is under orders of another–someone who doesn’t even have to risk venturing out on the boats, just as Peter in “A Hijacking.” There’s also empathy raised by casting a man who seems impossibly thin as Muse, his every appearance contrasts the land of plenty in America (Hanks, not known for his bare-chested roles with the exception of “Castaway,” is a doughy, soft, but not overweight American every man) and the desperate poverty of Somali.

In “Captain Phillips,” we know things that Hanks’ captain doesn’t know–we see the crew members in hiding. We see that Navy SEALs. We understand that orders have been given to prevent the Alabama from reaching a Somali port. Director Paul Greengrass makes this an action film, but Billy Ray’s screenplay also shows the psychological relationships between both captains to their crew members and the interplay of personalities and this seems more important amongst the ragtag Somali pirates. This isn’t just about the power shifting and game playing between two captains (Muse: “Look at me. I’m the captain now.”)

In “A Hijacking,” things move more slowly and there’s so much that we don’t know. Mikkel doesn’t know. There’s much we don’t know about Mikkel. We don’t know about his family. We don’t know about the pirates and their hierarchy, yet we do see an uneasy camaraderie that forms between the crew and the hijackers as they wait and negotiate with Peter. The Danish don’t have the military backing of the American Navy. They can’t send out Navy SEALs or helicopters. The government has no place in the negotiations; Peter, like Mikkel, is on his own.

“A Hijacking” sets up a more morally ambiguous situation in which there are no heroes or winners. Can you become friends with your kidnappers? And who can you really trust? More than “Captain Phillips,” “A Hijacking” forces you to think about the situation and gives you no easy answers.

“A Hijacking” then serves to show how out of touch Americans are with the world situation, as it is experienced by other nations who do not have the backing of a large and expensive military force. From the two articles cited above, perhaps “Captain Phillips” plays more to our national need for clear-cut heroes and the real Captain Phillips wasn’t a hero, but rather, we need him to be. According to the New York Post article, chief engineer Mike Perry was the real hero. He led the crew downstairs, cut off the systems and captured the pirate captain.

Muse is still in prison. We haven’t heard from him. His side of the story might be further enlightening, particularly when the reviews tend to treat the other roles of the Somali pirates other than Muse somewhat dismissively. Names aren’t mentioned. They are faceless.

According to an article about filmmaker Kaizer Matsumunyane, Muse has been subjected to harsh treatment that some groups call the equivalent of “psychological torture.” Muse in life seems to be caught in a gray area of American law and ethics.

We need our leaders to be heroes instead of arrogant men taking unnecessary risks. As Americans, we need heroes and stories that are clearcut when life is actually murkier and filled with gray areas. “A Hijacking” explores those gray areas and asks us to accept the point of view of the common person caught between politics and powerful men, doing the best he can, as honestly as he can to survive.

Viewing both “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking” gives one a better concept of the problems of piracy and Somali pirates. Yet I would guess that despite these two movies, most Americans will still view pirates as a thing of the past, romanticized and parodied by Disney and popularized by Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow. Few if any will feel a slight twinge of discomfort when they board the Disney theme park ride because the pirates of Somali are no more real to them than the Pirates of the Caribbean.

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