Between 2004 and 2016, Paul Greengrass directed a total of six movies. Four of those have Matt Damon in them. Three of them are about the fictitious Jason Bourne character. Two of them are based on a true story.
Today, we’re going to be looking at one of those movies.
With a budget of $55 million, Captain Phillips made about half that on opening weekend on its way to a profitable $107 million in theaters. It was also nominated for six Oscars, and while it didn’t end up winning at the Academy Awards, much of the movie’s success can be attributed to the amazingly intense way the film portrays the situation. It seems so real. But is it?
Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!
- Captain Phillips (Two Disc Combo: Blu-ray / DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy)
- A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea
- The real “Captain Phillips”
- Mystery shrouds ‘Captain Phillips’ ship deaths
- Crew members: ‘Captain Phillips’ is one big lie
- Did The U.S. Government Lie? Somali Pirate Disputes The Official Report On The Captain Phillips Disaster — Says Dirty Tricks, Not Superior Marksmanship, Brought Down Pirates
- The Smiling Pirate documentary
- More episodes on the Based on a True Story website
- Join the Based on a True Story Facebook page
- Support the show at Patreon
- Let me know what you think of the show on Twitter
Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.
Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
The movie begins on an ordinary Saturday, as we see Tom Hanks’ character packing up. The date is March 28th, 2009 when our story begins in the town of Underhill, Vermont. Underhill is a small town of just a few thousand people on the western side of Vermont. Richard Phillips, who is played by Tom Hanks in the movie, checks his computer to see his new orders. The camera focuses on the Captain’s Itinerary, which says his vessel, the Maersk Alabama, is to go from Salalah, Oman, to Mombasa, Kenya. The departure date is April 1st, 2009, and the arrival date in Kenya is a few days later on April 12th, 2009.
This itinerary for the ship is accurate. The Maersk Alabama was a cargo ship owned by the A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, and operated by Maersk Line, Limited. I say “was” because in 2015 the Maersk Alabama was renamed to the Maersk Andaman, then quickly in 2016 renamed again to the Maersk Tygra. She’s still in operation today, although she’s no longer named the Maersk Alabama.
While the movie doesn’t focus on this, Captain Phillips and his crew were fulfilling a contract Maersk Line, Limited had which meant they were hauling 17,000 metric tons of humanitarian aid such as non-perishable food and cargo to Kenya.
This sort of job was quite routine for Captain Phillips, who had been a sea captain for over 30 years by this time. So there’s not much concern as Tom Hanks’ version of Captain Phillips drives to the airport with his wife, Andrea. She’s played by Catherine Keener in the film.
After this, we cut to Eyl, Somalia, where we can see the stark differences in the life of Captain Phillips and the life of one of the pirates, Muse. In the movie, Muse is played by Barkhad Abdi. We get a small glimpse into what it must be like to be forced into a life of piracy, when a band of men arrive in Muse’s town and demand they get back out on the water.
“The boss wants money today!” One of the men shouts. “Bring Garaad another ship soon, or you will answer for it!”
What’s being implied here in the film is very true. The Somali pirates weren’t operating of their own accord. A man by the name of Mohamed Abdi Garaad was known in the region, and around the world, as a pirate kingpin of sorts.
According to most observers of the rise of piracy in the region, the most likely cause for the start of piracy in Somalia happened nearly 20 years earlier when foreign ships started fishing off the coast. As they did, over the years, this started to diminish the food supply for the coastal town of Eyl, and many of the surrounding regions.
Himself a fisherman from Eyl, on the eastern coast of Somalia, Garaad decided to do something about it. Taking advantage of the situation to help make himself rich, he banded together other fishermen into bands of pirates. Since they couldn’t fish for food anymore, they decided to fish for money.
Just six weeks before the events in the movie, Garaad granted an unprecedented interview with a media outlet, the UK’s The Globe and Mail. Interestingly, the interview was delayed by a day when Garaad disappeared. When he finally showed up for the interview, he nonchalantly claimed to be “busy”. Was he planning the hijacking? We don’t know. But it’s not likely.
In this interview, Garaad boasted of having direct control over 13 groups of pirates, with over 800 hijackers under his command. He also went on to say he didn’t care about the names of the ships, where they came from or where they’re going. So it’s not likely he had much of a hand in the planning himself.
Back on board the Maersk Alabama, things are rather typical for a few days. According to the emails we see Captain Phillips writing back home, it’s the first week of April now. We cut back to a ship with Muse and other pirates on board, and they’re looking at a screen indicating the ships in the area. One of them is off by itself. That’s the one they’ll attack.
Then, on April 7th, we see Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips again checking his email. This time he gets an email from Maritime Bulletins that warns of pirate attacks off the coast of East Africa. The basic gist of this memo is to alert of piracy off the Somali coastline, and it gives a phone number for the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Office that you’re supposed to call immediately if you’re under attack or the threat of attack.
This whole setup is true, but it’s missing some rather important details. For example, why was the Maersk Alabama the only ship off by its own? After the events in the movie took place, many people wondered this same thing. There’s only one conclusion they could come to: Captain Phillips simply ignored the warnings.
In truth, this wasn’t the only email. There were multiple safety alerts that warned ships to stay at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia. The real Captain Phillips admitted later to receiving a total of seven emails about increased piracy off the coast of Somalia. So that’s why there were a lot of ships grouped together in the movie. Captain Phillips, though, ignored these and, for some reason, steered the ship much closer to land.
The memo also makes mention of ships being held for ransom. And this is one other point that’s glossed over in the movie. For most pirates on the high seas, they’d steal the goods from a ship and use or sell that. For Garaad’s pirates, they did things a little differently. Instead of stealing goods and being done with it, they’d hold a ship for ransom. This could often take months, but eventually the shipping companies always paid. And it paid well. $5 million dollars was an average take. That’s a lot of money for Garaad’s pirates, but it was usually written off as simply the cost of doing business by the huge shipping companies.
In 2008 alone, piracy in Somalia raked in about $50 million. I’m speculating here, but I’d highly doubt Garaad’s 800-some hijackers saw any of that money. I’m guessing they saw just enough to survive and keep Garaad’s business going.
Back in the movie, aboard the Maersk Alabama, the crew is performing a routine test of the water hoses intended to deter pirates from boarding the ship. As they’re doing this, Captain Phillips notices a few blips on the radar. Looking out the window, he notices two boats.
And they’re closing in fast. Fortunately, the Maersk Alabama is able to zig zag and cause enough of a wake in the water that it causes the engines on the pirate’s small ships to die.
The truth is there’s some conflicting reports about how this happened. One of the crew members, who only spoke to the New York Post on the condition of anonymity, said it wasn’t a security drill as the movie shows. According to him, Captain Phillips told the crew to do lifeboat drills—drills that only need to be done once a year. Why do them when there’s pirates on the horizon?
On the other side of the story, Captain Phillips denies this. He says a drill was underway, but the pirate boats were seven miles away and there was nothing they could do anyway—so why not continue the drill?
Captain Phillips says the pirates were almost seven miles away. Why not continue the drills? It’s not like there’s much that you can do when the pirates are that far away.
So it seems as if the crew of the Maersk doesn’t see eye to eye on what happened.
According to the movie, after the pirate’s engine cuts out, they fall behind the Maersk. Later that evening, Tom Hanks’ version of Captain Phillips says something interesting as the crew meets up to discuss the events of the day, and what to do if the pirates come back. One of the crew, Ken Quinn, who’s played by Corey Johnson in the film, asks why they don’t just leave. Why not just get out of there and put some room between themselves and the pirates? A few of the other crew chip in, agreeing with Ken. In eight hours they could be 100 to 150 miles away.
Scratching the back of his neck, Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips explains there’s five bands of pirates in that part of the world. If you go out 300 miles you run into one. Go 600 hundred, you run into another. Then he explains their job is to move the cargo as fast as possible. Basically, if you don’t like it—sign the paperwork that you want off, and you’ll be out of there as soon as they hit port.
The basic gist of this whole chat makes it seem as if the Maersk Alabama was pinned in a corridor, surrounded by pirates. There’s nowhere to go, so you have to keep going the way you’re going.
While the Somalian pirates certainly weren’t the only pirates in the world, and while it’s impossible to know if they’d be completely safe from pirates further out, it’s pretty safe to say this part of the movie isn’t true.
We already learned about the piracy warnings that the real Captain Phillips got through email. All of the recommendations were to stay at least 600 miles off shore to avoid pirates.
It ends up being a “what if” situation. Since we only know what did happened, we don’t know what would’ve happened if Captain Phillips would’ve steered the ship further out to sea. But it’s possible that, sort of like the movie indicated when the pirates were looking for a lone ship, the Maersk would’ve been a lot less likely to have been chosen if they were grouped in with the rest of the ships 600 miles off shore.
According to the movie, none of this matters because four pirates end up coming back the next day. After radioing the ship, ordering the ship to stop—which it didn’t do, of course—the pirates manage to board the Maersk by hooking a ladder on board the ship.
This part is true, although the way it happened was different than in the movie.
It was 3:00 AM on April 8th, 2009, when the radio crackled to life on the bridge of the Maersk. The voice on the other end had a thick accent, but Captain Phillips could tell what they wanted. It was the pirates, demanding the cargo ship to stop. He ignored this demand, and instead pushed the Maersk faster. If it worked before, why not again?
It took four hours, but at 7:00 AM, the four armed Somali pirates managed to catch up with the Maersk. They threw grappling hooks over the side of the Maersk, and pulled themselves up. As the last one left their speedboat, he sank it. This was a common tactic for pirates, as it gave them no escape—no matter what happened, they tied their fate to the fate of the ship.
Now here’s where there’s another discrepancy in the recounting of what happened next.
In the movie, Tom Hanks’ version of Captain Phillips orders the crew to hide in the engine room. He and two others stay on the bridge to confront the pirates, who end up holding them at gunpoint. The men in the engine room then render the bridge controls useless as they disable the ship from below.
Here is where we’re introduced to the pirates for the first time. There’s four of them, Abduwali Muse, Nour Najee, Ali Aden Elmi, and the youngest of the pirates simply known as Bilal. In the movie, Muse is played by Barkhad Abdi, Najee is played by Faysal Ahmed, Elmi by actor Mahat M. Ali, and Bilal is played by Barkhad Abdirahman.
The basic gist of how the pirates storm the bridge is true, but the movie makes it seem as if Captain Phillips is turning himself over to keep the rest of the crew safe. And there’s a lot of conflicting reports about whether or not Captain Phillips was as heroic as the movie makes it seem at this moment. According to the ship’s third officer, Colin Wright, who isn’t portrayed in the film, said, “the captain was the first person captured, and it wasn’t because he gave his life for the crew, but because he had forgotten to lock the door of the room he was in.”
Another crewmember told the New York Daily News, “Phillips didn’t say what he wanted to do. His plan was, when the pirates come aboard, we throw our hands in the air and say, ‘Oh, the pirates are here!’ The chief engineer said, ‘We’re going downstairs and locking ourselves in.'”
Regardless, the result was the same. With part of the crew locked in an engine room reaching temperatures of 130 degrees and Captain Phillips in the bridge with the pirates, the situation wasn’t very good. Still, according to the real Captain Phillips in an interview with the New York Post, things weren’t as bad as the movie makes it seem. “The ship was never actually taken,” he explained.
In the movie, one of the pirates, Najee, holds a gun to Ken Quinn’s head. Then the heroics of Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Captain Richard Phillips hits its highest when he says, “If you want to shoot someone, shoot me!”
That never happened. In fact, many crewmembers afterward have expressed displeasure in how the movie made Captain Phillips out to be some sort of a martyr when he never offered his own life in exchange for his crew.
Back in the movie, the pirates start to search the ship as they try to find the rest of the crew. When they do, the pirate’s leader, Muse, who’s played by Barkhad Abdi in the film, gets captured by the crew. One of the pirates, Najee, demands that Captain Phillips go in the lifeboat. Until they get Muse, Phillips has to stay with them.
Finally, the Captain agrees to this, much to the disappointment of Shane Murphy, who’s played by Michael Chernus in the film. Shane keeps yelling, “You can’t do this cap!”
Then things turn sour when the crew turns Muse over to the pirates, but then they kidnap Captain Phillips instead. The lifeboat launches into the sea, leaving the crew back on the Maersk and Captain Phillips inside the lifeboat with the pirates.
The end result is the same, but that’s not really how it happened.
In truth, when Muse went below deck to look for the rest of the crew, one of the Maersk’s crew, a man by the name of A.T.M. Reza, captured him. But Muse didn’t resist the way he did in the movie.
In the ensuing struggle in the dark engine room, one of the crewmen stabbed Muse’s hand with an ice pick. Ultimately, Muse was subdued and the Maersk’s crew kept an eye on him. One of the crewmen, John Cronan, was the one who was charged with watching Muse.
As a little side note, while we don’t know Muse’s exact date of birth, many believe he was only about 16 years old in 2009.
For 12 hours, he and Muse stayed in the 130 degree engine room while above Captain Phillips tried to negotiate with the pirates. Later, Reza would recall that Muse pleaded with him to take him to America.
The final trade that was agreed upon was for Captain Phillips to go in the lifeboat with the pirates. Then, he’d be set free at the exact same time as the crew would set Muse free.
In the end, the pirates reneged on the deal. Muse broke free, and jumped overboard to join his friends on the lifeboat. Captain Phillips wasn’t released. Their plan was similar to what Muse ended up telling Captain Phillips in the movie: get close enough to Somalia so they can get on land and hold Captain Phillips for ransom.
At this point in the movie, we shift over to the USS Bainbridge as the U.S. Navy gets filled in on the situation. They’re about 100 miles to the east of where the Maersk Alabama was attacked.
This part of the movie is true. The Bainbridge is a U.S. Navy Arleigh-Burke class destroyer with a 9,200 ton displacement that’s still in service today. The three ships who answered the call were the Bainbridge, along with the USS Halyburton, a smaller Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate that has a displacement of about 4,100 tons. Then the final ship was the USS Boxer, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. This massive ship has a displacement of about 40,722 tons and carries almost 2,000 Marines and various aircraft.
The U.S Navy didn’t waste any time responding. By the time April 9th rolled around, the three ships had caught up with and positioned themselves around the Maersk Alabama’s lifeboat with the four Somali pirates and Captain Phillips inside.
One of the first things the U.S. Navy did was drop some two-way radios to the pirates. Negotiations began. The key here is similar to what it is in the movie: the pirates cannot reach Somalia. If they do, things will get a lot more complex.
Since the military is involved at this point we don’t really know the full story of what happened—most of the details are still classified. But the basic gist of things in the movie are correct.
On board the lifeboat, in the movie there’s a moment where Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips manages to escape. He does this by asking to use the bathroom. The pirates let him go outside to relieve himself, and when he does he bumps the pirate watching him into the ocean. Then in a flash, he jumps off the lifeboat and starts swimming toward the U.S. Navy ships.
Although we don’t know if the conversations happened the way they did, on April 10th the U.S. Navy did see Captain Phillips attempt to escape. But they weren’t able to get to him in time, and the pirates forced him back into the lifeboat after shooting at him in the ocean. After this attempted escape, the pirates started to throw the radios that the U.S. Navy had given them into the ocean. Fortunately, the Navy could still negotiate through a satellite phone.
In the movie, tensions rise to a new level when one of the pirates shoots a gun off next to Captain Phillips’ head. Captain Frank Castellano, who’s played by Yul Vazquez in the movie, on board the USS Bainbridge tells Muse over the phone, “We will not tolerate this. As the Captain you’re responsible for the life of everyone on board…and right now, you’re putting them at jeopardy.”
In truth, the negotiations broke down when one of the pirates shot at the Halyburton frigate as the sun was rising on Saturday, April 11th. No one was harmed, and no one returned fire because they didn’t want to make things even worse.
While this wasn’t covered in the movie, that same day, April 11th, the Maersk Alabama made it to it’s destination of Mombasa, Kenya. The movie does mention the military escorting the Alabama, and this is true—they were escorted the whole way by an 18-man team from the U.S. military.
About this time, President Barack Obama had given Captain Castellano authorization to do whatever he needed to do to return Captain Phillips home alive.
Back on the lifeboat, the ride started to get a bit choppy as the winds picked up. Taking advantage of the windy conditions, Captain Castellano on the Bainbridge suggested to the pirates that they tow the lifeboat. You know, just to help keep the lifeboat from getting tossed about. The pirates agreed, and a tow line was put in place.
The movie’s dramatic ending comes to a climax with two major points. The first is when Muse is tricked into boarding the USS Bainbridge to speak to village elders.
This whole trickery isn’t true, although Muse was on board the USS Bainbridge. He went there to be treated for his wound—when he had been stabbed in the hand with an ice pick. After arriving, Muse surrendered. He didn’t want to go back, so the Navy obliged and kept him on board the Bainbridge.
The other major point has to do with the Navy SEALs. We haven’t really talked about them so far, but at this point in the movie’s timeline we’ve seen the SEALs start gearing up. They end up parachuting into the water before getting on the Bainbridge. When they do, they take over. According to the movie, the SEALs are here to finish the situation. To make sure they don’t reach Somalia.
This one is true.
On Friday, April 10th, while the pirates were still reeling from Captain Phillips’ escape attempt, the SEALs parachuted into the situation. They landed near the Halyburton, which sent out a raft to bring them in. This was “SEAL Team Six”, which became popular after the same team took out Osama Bin Laden years later.
After boarding the ship, the SEALs were quickly brought up to speed on the most current situation. At this point, the Bainbridge had the lifeboat being towed about 30 yards behind it. Without wasting time, the SEALs set up to do their thing.
April 12th, 2009 was Easter Sunday. The SEALs were patiently waiting. Then, their time came. One of the pirates was pointing an AK-47 to Captain Phillips’ back, and that was when Captain Castellano gave the order to kill the pirates. Captain Phillips’ life was determined to be in immediate danger. With aptly-named military precision, the U.S. Navy SEAL marksmen fired three shots at the exact same time. Three pirates, Bilal, Najee, and Elmi, all died within seconds of each other.
In the movie, Muse is arrested on board the Bainbridge once Captain Phillips is rescued. We see Tom Hanks in a state of shock as he gets checked out by a doctor on the Navy destroyer. Then the movie ends with this final text:
“Richard Phillips returned to Vermont on April 17th, 2009 and was reunited with his family. Abduwali Muse was convicted of piracy and is currently serving 33 years at the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute, Indiana. On July 25th, 2010, Captain Phillips went back to sea.”
These details are true, but as you can probably guess, they don’t tell the whole story.
Captain Phillips did return to his family just a few days after the attack, on April 17th, 2009. Then, just a few months later, nine of the crewmembers filed a lawsuit against Maersk Line, Limited, the company which operates the Maersk Alabama. Although Captain Phillips wasn’t named in the lawsuit, the crewmembers claimed it was an event that could have been avoided.
The lawsuit claims that because both Captain Phillips and the Maersk company received multiple notifications of piracy in the area, everything could have been avoided if they’d only sailed the suggested 600 miles off the coast. Instead, Captain Phillips chose to sail about 250 miles from the coast, and they were attacked.
This lawsuit was dismissed in Texas, so the crewmembers filed another one in Alabama in 2012.
An additional point in the lawsuit was a claim by the crewmembers that they were set up for failure when they were sent into dangerous waters unarmed. They were forced to fight back against pirates armed with AK-47s with only what they could find, such as ice picks and pieces of pipe.
According to the lawyers hired by the crewmembers, Maersk Line, Limited dragged their feet the second time around. They knew the movie was coming out, and they wanted to wait for its release to help sway the public in their favor. The lawyers fought this, instead managing to keep everything confidential until the lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed after the movie released in 2014.
If there was a positive side to the lawsuit, and the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, it’s that the publicity of the events forced the shipping companies to do something about piracy. Other than simply pay the pirates the ransom they demand, of course. In 2009, the year of the Maersk Alabama hijacking, there were 214 attacks on cargo ships by pirates, with 47 of them turning into hijackings. By 2011, the number had increased to 237 attacks, but shipping companies started putting better security into place. And the U.S. Navy also helped by dispatching a number of ships specifically tasked with combating piracy. Named Combined Task Force 151, these new measures had a significant effect on piracy.
In 2012, the number of hijackings plummeted to 34. The following year, 2013, there were only a handful of hijackings, and in 2014 there were zero hijackings in the entire Indian Ocean.
In an interview with CNN, the real Captain Richard Phillips said he was no hero. “The media got everything wrong,” Captain Phillips said. “I don’t know how I could control this when I’m in a lifeboat and the media’s saying I gave myself up for it.”
Then he goes on, referencing his book Captain’s Duty, “In the book, if you’ve read it you’ll know I didn’t give myself up. I was already a hostage by then.”
Captain Phillips insists the real heroes were the U.S. Navy and the Navy SEALs who freed them from the hostage situation.
And that leads us to another part of the story that’s not really talked about in the movie. That is the story from the pirates point of view. Throughout the movie, Bilal is portrayed as the young one in the group. But in truth, they were all young. None of the pirates were over 19 years of age. When Muse was captured, he told the U.S. Navy he was 16 years old.
One of the crewmembers who captured the young pirate while on board the Maersk Alabama said of Muse, “His dream has come true, but he comes to the United States not as a visitor, but as a prisoner.”
After months of delaying his trial due to his being underage, Muse finally said he was 18 years old and the trial continued as if he was an adult. But was he really 18? Or did the U.S. Government convince him to say he was 18 so they could try him as an adult? We don’t know, but there’s plenty who believe he was coerced.
Moreover, Muse has said the U.S. Navy’s records of what happened aren’t what really happened. An American filmmaker, Kaizer Matsumunyane, became fascinated by the case and tried to create a documentary called The Smiling Pirate about Muse’s side of the story. Kaizer had the chance to talk to Muse while he was in prison, and the two struck up a close friendship.
According to Kaizer, who relayed this information in an interview with Radar Online, Muse again did as he was asked. He reached out to his friends in the lifeboat, asking that they put their weapons down and exit the lifeboat.
“Muse said that while he was on the Navy ship negotiating with American agents and having his injured hand treated, he was promised that they would get a safe passage back to Somalia if they released the captain of the ship. He said that he and the other pirates knew they were in a very desperate situation and just wanted the drama over and to go home.
“He relayed the message from the American agents to the pirates who were holding the American captain hostage on the small lifeboat. The pirates agreed to release the captain if they would not be captured. Muse said that the American agents asked him to tell the pirates to show good faith—they should exit the lifeboat with their weapons down.”
Then Kaizer continues, “As soon as the pirates exited the lifeboat, [Muse] suddenly heard a barrage of gunfire and saw his friends fall down dead. Even to this day, Muse says that episode keeps replaying in his mind. He wakes up with nightmares of seeing his dead friends, and he blames himself for their deaths, as he is the one who convinced them to get out of the lifeboat.”