‘Captain Phillips’ on Screen and Off

Capt. Richard Phillips knew the risks. A merchant seaman for 30 years and ship captain for nearly 20, the man at the helm of the Maersk Alabama has been forthright about the dangers his ship faced in sailing the pirate-infested waters off Somalia half a decade ago.

“It was not a matter of if, but of when,” he told The Journal of Commerce after the April 2009 saga that played out off the Horn of Africa, the first pirate attack on a U.S.-flag vessel in 200 years.

The story — an attack on an American asset, the taking of its leader as hostage and the dramatic rescue by Navy SEALS five days later — was tailor-made for Hollywood.

And Hollywood rarely passes up a tailor-made opportunity. “Captain Phillips” arrived in theaters on Oct. 11, preceded by Oscar buzz for the movie, its star — Tom Hanks, in the title role — and the supporting cast of Somali “pirates” who had never acted before.

That “Captain Phillips” has put the maritime industry at the center of pop culture isn’t unprecedented. “On the Waterfront” is legendary in its capturing of the corruption and violence that marked longshore labor in the 1950s. And the piracy story isn’t even the first to hit the big screen — the Danish film “A Hijacking” did that last fall.

But it is the latest — and biggest in recent memory — to put the industry under the microscope on such a grand scale. It also has thrust Richard Phillips back into a spotlight he hasn’t always felt comfortable with. Worse, it’s come with all the foibles of fame — witness the lawsuit by several of the Maersk Alabama crew who say Phillips put the ship in danger by ignoring warnings about sailing within 300 miles of the Somali coast for the sake of staying on time.

Beyond the film, the story of the Maersk Alabama is steeped in irony — Hollywood, after all, is all about it — that’s playing out in the halls of Congress and on Pennsylvania Avenue: the bleak future of the U.S. Merchant Marine.

The Maritime Administration in September said billions of dollars in funding cuts to federal programs contained in President Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget would reduce the number of vessels in the Maritime Security Program, ships that support military operations in times of crisis.

Coupled with other proposed cuts that would eliminate U.S.-flag ships from the federal Food for Peace program — vessels that carry approximately $1.5 billion in U.S. food aid to needy countries a year — the budget could represent another nail in the coffin of a U.S.-flag fleet columnist Gary Ferrulli traces from the halcyon days of the 1980s to today’s era of dominant global operators that have rendered the Merchant Marine all but obsolete.The Maersk Alabama, a ship built in the U.S., and crewed and owned by Americans, is part of that fleet.

The irony? The very ship that put the industry back on the mainstream map soon could find itself completely off it.

Contact Chris Brooks at cbrooks@joc.com and follow him at twitter.com/cbrooks_joc.

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