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ap­tain Phillips,” star­ring Tom Hanks, is the taut, ripped-from-the-head­lines tale of the 2009 hi­jack­ing of the con­tainer ship Maersk Alabama and kid­nap­ping of its cap­tain, Richard Phillips, by So­mali pi­rates.

The tense docu­d­rama, which has gen­er­ated early award buzz for Mr. Hanks’ per­for­mance in the ti­tle role, tries to un­der­stand the mo­ti­va­tions of the vi­o­lent So­mali ma­raud­ers who seized con­trol of Cap­tain Phillips’ mer­chant ves­sel in the pi­rate-in­fested waters 240 miles off the coast of So­ma­lia and took him hostage.

But in try­ing to ex­plain the pi­rates, does the film cross over into ex­cus­ing them? Not ac­cord­ing to Mr. Hanks. “It’s an ex­am­in­ing of mo­ti­va­tions,” the ac­tor said in an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Times, when asked how an artist walks that fine line be­tween ex­plana­tory and ex­cul­pa­tory sto­ry­telling.

“I don’t think there’s any ed­i­to­rial as­pect that goes into it,” said the two-time Os­car win­ner, his voice drown­ing out the other in­ter­vie­wees hold­ing court at the Ge­orge­town Four Sea­sons. “It be­comes more em­pir­i­cal — we as the au­di­ence have a broader un­der­stand­ing of the des­per­a­tion be­hind this des­per­ate act.”

In one of the trail­ers for “Cap­tain Phillips,” the ti­tle char­ac­ter says to the icily vi­o­lent pi­rate ring­leader Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), “There’s got to be some­thing other than kid­nap­ping peo­ple.”

“Maybe in Amer­ica,” Muse replies, sadly.

Com­bined with the pa­thetic, sym­pa­thet­i­cally skele­tal ap­pear­ance of the pi­rates, it’s enough to set off warn­ing bells. Wary view­ers may hear warn­ing sig­nals of “moral equiv­a­lence.”

Mr. Hanks and the film’s di­rec­tor, Paul Green­grass, seemed to have an­tic­i­pated such crit­i­cism — and read­ied a de­fense.

“Films aren’t jour­nal­ism. They’re not his­tory. But they can con­vey truths, some truths,” said Mr. Green­grass, who di­rected the shat­ter­ingly re­al­is­tic 9/11 drama “United 93” (2006). “I think you can, if you’re lucky, cap­ture some of the lay­ers of it. The lack of easy an­swers.”

While “Cap­tain Phillips” hews closely to the facts of the 2009 hi­jack­ing, it aims to tell more than a sim­ple story about car­toon­ish good guys and bad guys. It seeks in­stead to tell a story of two cap­tains, each with his own set of ra­tional rea­sons for do­ing what he is do­ing.

Al­though the pi­rates’ ac­tions are ra­tional, they are no less bru­tal: Phillips is beaten, his crew mem­bers threat­ened with ex­e­cu­tion and his life nearly ex­tin­guished. Phillips’ or­deal is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what is en­dured by those who are taken hostage by pi­rates. Ac­cord­ing to pro­duc­tion notes for the film, “about 2,000 hostages were taken by pi­rates” from 2009 to 2012.

Sixty-two hostages have died dur­ing that time.

“Richard Phillips never thought, ‘Hey, they were nice guys that got a bum deal,’” said Mr. Hanks, who in­ter­viewed the re­al­life cap­tain be­fore the film­ing.

Mr. Abdi, a So­ma­lian mak­ing his act­ing de­but in the film as the chill­ingly fear­less Muse, brings a hard-won al­ter­nate per­spec­tive to the pi­rates’ plight.

“I was born in So­ma­lia,” said the young ac­tor. “By the time I was 6, war had be­gun. And there was killing, there was guns ev­ery­where. At night we would sleep to the sounds of guns — my brother and me would name the guns based on the sound of it.

“There are a lot of kids … that don’t have no school. Don’t know what’s go­ing on. Don’t have noth­ing. No job. No hope. Noth­ing. For that, I un­der­stand and feel com­pas­sion.”

But com­pas­sion does not trans­late into jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, said Mr. Abdi. “What’s this [hi­jack­ing] to him? It is the chance of a life­time. You know? It’s a crime, I un­der­stand that,” he said, rais­ing his hands as if to head off ar­gu­ment. “I’m not ex­cus­ing him. Me, per­son­ally, I be­lieve there’s other ways he could have got by.”

The film it­self sug­gests that is not nec­es­sar­ily the case. Glob­al­iza­tion is blamed for over­fish­ing of the waters off of So­ma­lia’s coast. This in turn has im­pov­er­ished the men who once made their liv­ings off of those waters, leav­ing them a choice be­tween star­va­tion and piracy.

The life of a So­mali pi­rate sketched out by Mr. Green­grass and his ac­tors is hardly pleas­ant. War­lords ef­fec­tively run the na­tion, send­ing mal­nour­ished young men out in rick­ety skiffs to at­tack mas­sive con­tainer ships. What­ever money they earn is sent back to the men in charge.

“Just ex­am­in­ing the grander struc­ture of piracy with th­ese crim­i­nal bosses that come into it — that’s al­most rec­og­niz­able as our own or­ga­nized crime,” said Mr. Hanks. “We get that.”

As with films about the mafia, the au­di­ence is en­cour­aged to un­der­stand, but not con­done, the be­hav­ior of the So­mali pi­rates in “Cap­tain Phillips.”

“I just had to show peo­ple emo­tion­ally what it meant to him to get there,” Mr. Abdi says of Muse.

For the di­rec­tor, show­ing peo­ple those emo­tions while re­lay­ing the essence of what oc­curred is the goal of ev­ery de­cent film­maker.

“When you can bal­ance re­gard for the facts and a de­sire to be truth­ful about the ex­pe­ri­ence, you get the truths of cin­ema,” said Mr. Green­grass. “They are dif­fer­ent from jour­nal­ism, but they are pro­found none­the­less.”


Tom Hanks stars as Richard Phillips, cap­tain of the con­tainer ship Maersk Alabama that was hi­jacked in 2009, in “Cap­tain Phillips.” The film’s di­rec­tor, Paul Green­grass, coun­ters crit­i­cism by say­ing “films aren’t jour­nal­ism. They’re not his­tory. But they can con­vey truths, some truths. I think you can, if you’re lucky, cap­ture some of the lay­ers of it. The lack of easy an­swers.”

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