How Close Did 'Captain Philips' Get To The Real Life Piracy Tale?

The film Captain Phillips is "based on a true story" of the 2009 hijacking of an American ship by Somali pirates. But how faithfully does the movie capture real events? Robert Siegel puts that question to Colin Freeman, chief foreign correspondent with Britain's Sunday Telegraph. Freeman covered the 2009 incident and has himself been kidnapped by Somali pirates.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR NEWS. I'm Robert Siegel.

This week, we're returning to some movies that were released this year; in particular, movies based on real stories and events. And we're asking people who are familiar with those real stories and events whether the movies are faithful to them, or in some ways aren't faithful to them.

Today, the suspenseful piracy story off the Somali Coast: the hijacking of the cargo ship the Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of its captain, Richard Phillips.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

TOM HANKS: (as Captain Phillips) This the Maersk Alabama. Our position is two degrees two north by 39 degrees, 19 east. Our course is 180. Our speed is 17 knots. We have two skiffs approaching at a distance of 1.5 miles with a possible mother ship following - potential piracy situation.

SIEGEL: That's Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips.

Colin Freeman has written about the story, the movie, and the problem of piracy for Britain's Sunday Telegraph. In fact, in the course of his work, he was kidnapped by Somali pirates. And he joins us from London. Welcome to the program.

COLIN FREEMAN: Hello.

SIEGEL: And first, I should say in the way of summary that in this story, Captain Phillips negotiates the freedom of his crew and ship, in exchange for money. He is taken hostage in a lifeboat and the episode ends in a rescue raid at sea by Navy SEALs. Does the movie generally strike you as a generally truthful rendering of what happened?

FREEMAN: Yes, it does. It's a very realistic docudrama kind of movie, I would say. From what I can tell having interviewed Captain Phillips, having read his book as well, and my recollections of the incident when it happened, it's pretty much as told. There are some details that have been changed, I think occasionally just for the purpose of narrative convenience really more than anything else.

SIEGEL: There is one contentious point, I guess, in the movie and in Richard Phillips' account. Several crewmembers in real life charged that - in the lawsuit they charged that the ship was sailing too close to shore, and that there were warnings of piracy in the area and messages urging Phillips to sail farther out. He's a defense witness in that suit and, I gather, denies any negligence.

Do you have any sense of who's right about that? Was the ship sailing dangerously close to the Somali coast?

FREEMAN: I don't have any particular sense of who is right on that, and obviously it will be down for a court to decide so. I've read the Maersk Alabama, the ship company that employed Captain Phillips and the crew, have said that the lawsuit is without foundation. It should also be remembered that at the time when this kidnapping took place, the Somali pirates had suddenly begun to range far wider out to sea, and ships had been caught 600, a thousand miles off the Somali coast - effectively all over the western half of the Indian Ocean.

SIEGEL: Well, here's a moment in the movie "Captain Phillips" when pirates take over the Maersk Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Don't move. Don't move.

HANKS: (as Captain Phillips) OK. OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Don't move. Don't move.

HANKS: (as Captain Phillips) It's all right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Don't move. I say don't move.

HANKS: (as Captain Phillips) All right. All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF A COMMOTION)

SIEGEL: That's actually a pretty terrifying, heart-pounding scene. I'm curious - first, as someone who was taken captive by Somali pirates - do you think this movie gets them right?

FREEMAN: Yes, I think it does. The pirates in the film are quite scary and watching them being played on screen did bring some of it back for me. I have to say I would not be too sad if this lot ended on the end of a gallows. They come across as a thoroughly nasty bunch and that is, you know, down to the quality of the acting involved. As I understand it, they actually got in non-professional actors by recruiting people from Minnesota in America, from a Somali community there.

What's also notable, though, is that having stormed the ship at the beginning, and put on a great display of aggression, the pirates then calm down and relax a lot and say: Look, don't worry, this is just about money - no problem - we're not al-Qaida or whatever. And that's something that you often hear pirates doing. And, you know, that they make it very clear to people very early on that this is effectively a business model. And that, you know, if the crew just simply pay up the ransom then there will be no problem.

SIEGEL: Well, hijackings did become so common off the Somali coast that shipping companies, ship owners were routinely paying off ransoms.

FREEMAN: That's right, yes. And while that may seem a bit of a weak-handed course of action and one that might just simply make the problem worse - paying ransoms and paying ransoms fairly willingly - what you have to do, to some extent, is to look at it from the shipping side of the economics of it.

When a big ship is stuck and waylaid by pirates, for example, for a day, every day costs the ship owners and the insurers and various other people something like $50,000 a day. That's a bit of a working figure, I think. But a large sum every day simply in terms of the running cost of the ship, the fuel cost, the delays in delivering goods on time, and so on and so forth. If you have a ship that is held for, say, two months, you're already running up in large sums of money. So you might as well pay a ransom of two or three million - cut your losses and run. That's purely the finances of it, as well.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

FREEMAN: That's before you even think about the lives of the crewmen on board.

SIEGEL: By the end of this movie, the American crew is safe. The pirates have either been killed or captured. And so we have some sense of resolution. More broadly, the issue of piracy off the Somali coast, should we feel somewhat resolved about it - that the situation has improved? Or should we feel just as worried as we were in 2009?

FREEMAN: Certainly piracy attacks have decreased dramatically, mainly because ship crews now have armed guards on board. And that has certainly put off a lot of the pirates. More long-term though, Somalia is still a country that's got a lot of problems, the problems that gave birth to the piracy have not gone away.

There is also an issue that people don't often talk about which is that a lot of people in that country have got used to the idea of earning money by kidnapping people. That's where they see their easy money coming from, in the same way as communities in America or in Europe, some of their young men see drug dealing as an easy out. That's not going to go away and that is an issue.

SIEGEL: Mr. Freeman, thank you very much for talking with us today.

FREEMAN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Colin Freeman, senior foreign correspondent for Britain's Sunday Telegraph, who has covered Somali piracy, even was taken captive by Somali pirates once. And we were talking about the movie "Captain Phillips."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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