British director Paul Greengrass' latest film, "Captain Phillips," is gripping cinema, and a sure-fire leading Best Picture Oscar contender. (Significantly, Greengrass' own father had served in the British Merchant Navy during World War Two.) The true story of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a vast container ship hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, is brought to powerful life on the big screen through Tom Hanks's outstanding lead role, and a series of standout performances from the cast of (until recently) unknown Somali actors, headed by Barkhad Abdi.
The movie is as suspenseful as Greengrass' brilliant "United 93," and like the director's earlier work about the 9/11 hijackings, is clearly striking a chord with American audiences. The suburban Washington, DC theatre where I watched the film was packed, and burst into loud applause as the end credits rolled. "Captain Phillips" has echoes of Kathryn's Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," another patriotic crowd-pleaser that also highlights the stunning skill of U.S. Navy SEALS, who were sent in to rescue Phillips from his Somali captors. Both films are a powerful illustration of the professionalism of America's armed forces, and a salute to their vital role in confronting terrorism.
Thankfully, in both instances, the White House made the right call, amidst a foreign and national security policy that has all too often been lost at sea in recent years.
Above all, "Captain Phillips" is a study of extraordinary courage and leadership on the part of Richard Phillips, who selflessly offered up his own life -- not once, but twice -- during the hostage ordeal to save the lives of his crew. His ultimate survival was a miracle, considering the incredibly dangerous circumstances in which he was placed. Phillips agreed to go with the pirates into a lifeboat in order to get the terrorists off his ship, in a move that could easily have sealed his fate. He was then held for ransom, in a vain and naive attempt by the pirates to extort millions of dollars from the United States, emboldened by the fact that European companies had on previous occasions paid out to secure the release of their employees. During his brief captivity aboard the lifeboat, Phillips was badly beaten after attempting to escape, and had a gun placed to his head on several occasions, with his captors extremely close to pulling the trigger.
During the entire hijack ordeal, including the lead-up to the boarding of his ship, Captain Phillips took a number of crucial decisions that undoubtedly weakened the ability of the pirates to take control of his ship; decisions that likely saved the lives of his crew members. His leadership was resolute, measured and always in the interest of those who served with him. Philips was no ditherer in chief at a time of crisis, but a truly decisive leader who made life and death decisions under incredible pressure.
There is much to admire in the way Richard Phillips handled the hijacking of his ship off the coast of East Africa, in a pirate raid that did not result in a single loss of life for the ship's crew. Any U.S. president could and should learn from Phillips' example, but perhaps Barack Obama could gain the most. It is hard to think of a greater contrast in leadership style than that of the hubristic, vacillating current President of the United States, and the selfless, quick-thinking skipper of the Maersk Alabama. A professorial-style President who often takes months to make up his mind (think of his announcement of the Afghanistan surge), whose White House prides itself on "leading from behind" and is regularly mired in confusion, Barack Obama is certainly no Captain Phillips.