Poverty, ethics and Hollywood

Tom Hanks as the captain

By now, the film Captain Phillips (which is playing in Australian cinemas) has earned more than $62 million worldwide. The ragged band of young pirates demanded much less on boarding Maersk Alabama, the US merchant ship carrying food aid from Oman to Kenya. There is much to think about here, writes Phyllis Zagano.


When Captain Phillips left Vermont that spring day in 2009, it was just another trip for "the company." Merchant sea captains work six months on, six months off. They pick up ships in ports all over the world and deliver cargo though fog and weather on the high seas. Then they go home to tend the tomatoes and mow the lawn or to shovel snow and stack the firewood, depending on the job, the rotation, the company.

When Abduwali Muse left the Somali coast, he was part of a rag-tag bunch of boys -- don't forget that part: a rag-tag bunch of teenaged boys -- who dreamed of iPads and gold and cars and most of all, about money, and lots of it. Money would solve everything. It would buy them shoes and fill their bellies; it would get them shelter. It would make them powerful, even power brokers, in the sand and scrub that they called home. They were boys.

The big words apply here: consumerism, globalisation, materialism.

So then there is the movie. The US ship leaves port; the Somali boys go after it. The ship outruns the boys. The boys try once again and catch it. They board the ship -- a merchant ship, mind you, armed only with fire hoses to keep the skinny pirates away.

The movie does movie things to keep suspense alive for two hours and 14 minutes. The basic story is the same as when, in 2009, four young pirates boarded Maersk Alabama and took its captain hostage on one of the ship's lifeboats. The U.S. Navy showed up. The lead pirate left the lifeboat to negotiate. A team of Navy SEALs set their high-powered automatic weapons' night-vision sights and, with clear shots of the three remaining boys, they fired. Captain Phillips was not hurt.

The boys' visions of a Somali easy street went dark.

Captain Phillips went into shock. No matter his training, his experience, his talents, his education. When too many hours in a hot and stinking lifeboat end with three shot teenagers spurting blood all over your blindfolded self, the last defenses leave and you collapse.

The Navy took care of Captain Phillips, but here's the heartbreak (or, here are the heartbreaks). First, the pirate leader boarded the Navy ship to negotiate under a real or metaphorical flag of truce. With the others dead and Captain Phillips safe, all pretenses fell away. The Navy handcuffed Abduwali Muse. Second, they were teenagers. The United States eventually prosecuted Abduwali Muse as an adult, even as he and his parents claimed he was not yet 18. The others were also, as U.S. law would have it, "minors."

FULL STORY Poverty in the movies

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