The True Tale of Captain Phillips

We break down what's fact — and fiction — in the high-seas drama starring Tom Hanks

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Columbia Pictures

The true tale of Richard Phillips, the captain of a cargo ship taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009, is so thrilling that screenwriters hardly needed to add any extra drama. Tom Hanks’ Phillips employs almost all the same strategies the real-life captain did to save his crew and himself from the armed pirates.

Here’s what’s true-to-life — and what’s manufactured by Hollywood — according to Phillips’ memoir, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.

[ Warning: Spoilers ahead. ]

The pirates arrived while the crew of the Maersk Alabama was in middle of an emergency drill

Ruling: Fact

Captain Phillips, who had a reputation as a no-nonsense captain, ran several emergency drills on the Alabama during the voyage, including one that the pirates interrupted, as depicted in the film

Captain Phillips faked a call to the Navy to deter the pirate ships

Ruling: Fact

When Phillips spotted the pirate boats coming his way, he got on his radio and faked a call to a U.S. Navy warship, dropping his accent to play the voice of the Navy responder, so that the pirates might overhear the exchange on their radios and think that assistance was on the way. In the movie, the mothership and two speed boats are pursuing the Alabama at that time, and the mothership and one of the speedboats turn back. In reality, the Alabama had one more speedboat in addition to those other boats in pursuit. In both cases, Phillips’ trick scared all the ships off but one.

Phillips and his crew tricked one of the pirates by laying broken glass on the ground 

Ruling: Fiction

In the film, the Alabama crew craftily lays broken glass on the ground for one of the pirates (who is barefoot) to step on when he enters the engine room where they are hiding. The injury forces the pirate with the bloody foot and Captain Phillips to turn back, allowing the rest of the crew to overtake the other pirate with a knife and hold him hostage. In reality, Phillips didn’t lead the pirates to his crew’s hiding place. Rather, Phillips sent one of the sailors down to search the ship with an unarmed Somali pirate, at which point the chief engineer ambushed the pirate with a knife and took him hostage.

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Jasin Boland / © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Phillips is kidnapped on the lifeboat as the pirates leave the Alabama

Ruling: Mostly Fact

Phillips actually tried to put the pirates on an open-air boat first (so that the Navy could more easily shoot them), but the battery was busted. He decided to use the enclosed bright orange life boat from the movie instead, hoping to just get the pirates off the ship. The crew tried to exchange the captured pirate for Captain Phillips, as depicted in the movie, but once the pirate hostage climbed off the Alabama, the pirates drove the lifeboat away without letting Phillips climb onto the Alabama.

Phillips attempted to escape by swimming away from the lifeboat 

Ruling: Fact

Phillips pushed one of the pirates into the water while he was relieving himself outside the hatch and tried to swim away. However, the moon was so bright that the pirates could easily spot him and retrieve him, after shooting rounds over his head. When they recaptured Phillips, the pirates beat him up and tied him up.

Navy SEALs took out the Somali pirates while Captain Phillips was strung up and blindfolded 

Ruling: Part fact, part fiction

When the pirates realized they were trapped, they did plan to kill Phillips, but not in a panic. Phillips describes them setting up a ritual-like way in which they would kill him that included stringing him up. They fired shots near his head, scaring him, and left him tied up for days. However, they eventually untied him when Phillips got so sick that a Navy doctor had to come on board the lifeboat to bring him food and examine him. After one of the pirates fired off a few rounds into the air during an argument with his colleagues, the pirates went to the hatch to reassure the Navy that Phillips was okay. At that point, the SEALs killed all the pirates, leaving Phillips safe lying on the floor of the boat.

Towards the end of his ordeal, Phillips took pity on at least the youngest of his captors

Ruling: Fiction

Phillips said before a screening of the movie, “We were always adversaries. I thought it was important to make sure we both knew we were adversaries in that. I thought that was important for me and my survival. There was no Stockholm syndrome.” In the film, Phillips makes a few comments to the pirates that could be interpreted as sympathy, especially to the youngest pirate.