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Film poster for "Captain Phillips" which has been nominated for six Academy Awards.
Film poster for "Captain Phillips" which has been nominated for six Academy Awards.

In Whallonsburg, real star of "Captain Phillips" talks modern piracy

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It's Oscar season and this year two Academy Award nominees have connections here in our region. One is "12 Years A Slave", which tells the true story of a free black man, Solomon Northup. In the 1800s, Northup lived much of his life in the North Country before being abducted and sold into slavery in the South.

The other movie with connections to our region is "Captain Phillips," which tells the true tale of Captain Richard Phillips, a Vermont merchant mariner who survived a modern pirate attack off the coast of Somalia in 2009. Phillips visited the Adirondacks earlier this month for a screening of the film about his life at the Whallonsburg Grange Hall.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief


Phillips is a husky guy and just sort of normal looking – not the sort you expect to see at the center of a major Hollywood movie. The opening scene of the film shows him packing and heading off to the Burlington airport for his flight to Oman where he would skipper a container ship called the Maersk Alabama.

Water was my complete focus and at times they'd give it to me and at times they wouldn't.
Phillips lives in Vermont, but since the film came out, he's traveled across the US, talking to groups like the Champlain Valley Film Society about modern-day piracy, the role of the merchant marine in modern global society – and his own harrowing experience.

He says the hijacking that changed his life five years ago began on a gorgeous day, with flat calm seas, perfect conditions for pirates hoping to board big freighters.

"It was an ideal piracy day," Phillips recalls. "That's when it all started."

At that time, Somali warlords ran pirate operations regularly, targeting ships passing through the Gulf of Aden near the Suez Canal.

"It's a bullying situation. They're just attacking anything and everything they see."

"Captain Phillips" is harrowing at times, with its story of two wildly different cultures meeting in a moment of violence and greed and desperation. The real Captain Phillips says the actual experience was far worse. The pirates were more cruel, more vicious than portrayed onscreen, and he was held hostage in a small lifeboat for four days.

"Water was my complete focus and at times they'd give it to me and at times they wouldn't."

NOTE:  This story has been corrected.  The original version inadvertently transposed the name of pirate Abduwali Muse and actor Barkhad Abdi.

One of the main characters in the film is the real-life pirate Abduwali Muse, portrayed by the actor Barkhad Abdi, who's been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal. The real pirate is being held in Federal prison here in the US following his capture. Phillips says he's hasn't talked to the man over the last five years.

"I really haven't had any contact with him and don't have any desire. They really tried to humanize the pirates and they are human," he says, but Phillips describes his attackers as thugs and murderers and he points out that his former ship the Maersk Alabama has been attacked repeatedly since his own incident.

Phillips says one of the reasons he's proud of the film and has taken a more public role since the 2009 attack is that merchant sailors face this kind of threat all over the world. Much of the violence has shifted away from Somalia to places like Nigeria and Indonesia, but Phillips says high seas piracy is a major threat.

Phillips went back to sea as a captain 14 months after the events portrayed in the movie. He says at first, the violence and tension were hard to shake. "I'd wake up at five in the morning just crying and bawling like a little baby," he remembers.

Phillips says one of the Navy Seals who rescued him urged him to talk to a psychologist, and that counseling helped him work through the anger and sorrow.

Want more real-life stories from this year's Oscars with a connection to our region? Check out this interview on The Takeway about the North Country's Solomon Northup, whose life story is at the center of "12 Years A Slave."


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