Everyone knows what pirates look like. They’ve got eye patches. Peg legs. Parrots on their shoulders. We dress up as pirates for costume parties, celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day (every year on Sept. 19), even use Google Pirate to searrrch for engravin’s.
Pirates are a pop-culture joke.
Unless, that is, you’re sailing around the Horn of Africa. There, pirates are deadly serious.
In 2009, Somali pirates attacked 75 ships. In the first week of April alone, seven ships were assailed in the Somali Basin, and four hostages were killed. These pirates carry assault rifles, not cutlasses. Instead of buried treasure, they hunt for ransom money—millions of dollars sometimes, enough to feed an entire village for months or, more likely, temporarily sate a local warlord’s thirst for loot.
Before he ever climbed aboard the Maersk Alabama, Captain Richard Phillips knew he was piloting the cargo ship through treacherous waters. Everyone knew. The vessel was equipped with barriers and water cannons designed to repel pirates and keep its captain, crew and 17,000 tons of cargo safe.
But sometimes water cannons aren’t enough.
On April 8, four Somali pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama—the first time an American ship had been seized by pirates in nearly two centuries. “No al-Qaeda here,” says the pirate captain Muse. “Just business.” They’re there for the money, and they figure the ship and its captain are worth lots of it. The ship is loaded with wealth, and Americans will pay dearly for the return of their own people. Muse and his fellows seem to have landed the pirate equivalent of the lottery.
But even when you hook a big fish, you still gotta haul it in. And Captain Phillips aims to shake loose.
Captain Phillips is based on the true story of the Maersk Alabama, its crew and most importantly its captain. And Phillips is, in many ways, just the sort of man you’d hope a captain to be.
Initially, some of his crew think their cap’n is a little too persnickety over safeguarding the ship and conducting drills to prepare for an attack. But their minds change fast when the pirates actually come. “Stick together, and we’ll be just fine,” Phillips tells his crew over the radio. “Good luck.”
They do stick together, even though Phillips and a couple of crewmen are taken hostage. When Muse issues a shipwide threat, telling the hiding crew that they’ll shoot somebody every minute until the rest reveal themselves, Phillips demands they shoot him first—and eventually manages to talk Muse out of shooting anyone at all.
When that immediate danger is passed, Phillips manages—even in captivity—to direct his crew through the dangerous cat-and-mouse game they’re forced to play, helping them evade the pirates. And he continues to match wits with Muse and his men. He bandages up one of the pirates’ wounds to earn a little sympathy. He resists when he feels he has to. And in every conversation, he probes for any sort of advantage he can find.
The Bible tells us to be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves. Phillips, forced into a position where he can do very little actual harm, proves to be quite wily. And when the might of the American military arrives to settle the matter once and for all, Phillips pleads—as much as he can—for mercy to be shown to a particularly young pirate.
While we’re on the subject of the American military, it’s important to note that it demonstrates a great deal of skill and at the same time restraint. Several people do what they can to solve the watery showdown peacefully.
From the get-go, moviegoers understand that these Somalis aren’t just playing pirate. For them, this line of work is deadly serious. Muse and his crew fire their weapons at the Maersk Alabama crew. Phillips fires flares at the pirates, but to no avail. As mentioned, the pirates threaten to kill the Americans, and they continuously brandish weapons in an incredibly aggressive fashion—pointing them at or pressing them into people’s heads, and using them as bludgeons, smashing stocks into guts, backs and faces.
Men are hit, kicked and choked. One is roughly tied up. Another is thrown to the ground. A guy steps on broken glass, leaving puncture wounds. Another has his hand sliced open during a confrontation. He bleeds profusely, leaving bloody handprints on the walls.
We see Muse and a rival pirate captains argue over who’s the coward, with the other man pushing a pistol barrel into Muse’s forehead. Muse responds by bashing his assailant with a huge piece of metal. The man lies on the deck bleeding, and Muse says, “The coward is the first one in the grave.” Other men are killed; we see sprays of blood and gore.
Three s-words and a smattering of other profanities, including “a–” (three or four times), “p—” (once) and “h—” (once or twice). God’s name is misused three times, twice with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is also abused thrice.
Somalis chew on the leaves of a plant they call khat—a recreational drug of sorts that WebMD says contains “stimulants similar to amphetamines” and is used as an “euphoriant” (They get irate when they run out.) The pirates also smoke cigarettes, rolling their own. A crew member jokes with his buddies about asking for “two beers and a bucket full of sin.”
“Everything going to be OK,” Muse tells Captain Phillips again and again. Muse isn’t lying—or, at least, he hopes not. This is, as he says, just business: He likens it to a tax on passing ships. Musa doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He just wants money to pay off his own bosses, to keep him alive and perhaps add a bit of prestige to his pirating résumé. He wants this victory. He needs it. And even when it looks as though the whole situation could end very, very badly, he still must believe it’s in his reach. He’s the man who caught a tiger by the tail—a man who believes, if he holds on long enough, that the tiger will just give up and sit quietly.
Unfortunately for Muse, tigers don’t think much like that.
Captain Phillips ultimately offers viewers a bit of a choppy voyage, mostly due to the gritty subject and the harrowing events it tackles. We hear profanity. We see murderous violence. But we also witness amazing bravery—interspersed with compassion and empathy.
The fierce finale of this story was broadcast around the world more than three years ago. But even so, the film offers a surprise or two. While it gives us an unmistakable hero in Captain Phillips, its villains earn a measure of sympathy. We’re not asked to forgive them, but we are encouraged to look at the circumstances in which they live: the poverty, the pressure from their leaders. Muse and his gang aren’t so much trying to get rich as trying to survive. The fish off the coast of Somalia have all been caught, Muse complains. What else do they have?
“There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people,” Phillips tells him.
“Maybe in America,” Muse says. “Maybe in America.”
In that, Captain Phillips conveys how blessed Americans—indeed, everyone living in first-world countries—are. The Maersk Alabama is a massive cargo ship burdened with literally tens of thousands of tons of goods. Its defender, the U.S. military, bristles with well-armed ships and helicopters, near-magical technology and supremely trained fighters. The pirates? They have their beaten up skiff. They have their rifles. They have the knowledge that this tiger, now that they’ve caught it, is all they have to hold on to.
Again, none of this excuses the pirates’ lawless and violent actions. And, again, the movie doesn’t try to. But it does offer a nod to the truth that not all of the world’s evil is done merely for the sake of doing evil. Sometimes people think they don’t have a choice. Even though there’s always a choice.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.