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Richard Phillips praises Tom Hanks' understated film portrayal of his harrowing capture by Somali pirates

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Given that Hollywood often seems like a haven for pretentious behavior, Richard Phillips was impressed that Tom Hanks came across as "a regular guy." The actor visited Phillips, a cargo ship captain, at his 19th-century farmhouse here three times in the past two years.

Hanks stars in the title role of Captain Phillips, an Oct. 11 release about the Vermonter's 2009 capture by Somali pirates and subsequent rescue by the Navy's fabled SEAL Team Six.

"He came here to study me," Phillips explained. "We just talked about this and that. I got us a couple of sandwiches from the Underhill Country Store."

They both ordered an item devised as a salute the town's local hero soon after the piracy ordeal ended: "The Captain Phillips," which is toasted and consists of roast beef, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion on a sub roll.

The screenwriter, Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) met several times with Phillips. He also had extensive talks with the director, Paul Greengrass (United 93), and they apparently clicked: "He's another down-to-earth person. Maybe a little quirkier. But he could relate to my story because his father is a retired merchant mariner."

On the big screen, his story is "a good action film," Phillips said. "I saw an almost-finished version on the West Coast in June. I wondered how it would affect me but what actually happened was a lot worse than that."

Anyone who has seen the harrowing movie might wonder what was worse than being repeatedly punched, kicked and choked? "The mock executions," Phillips explained.

Oceangoing nightmare

His ship at the time, the Maersk Alabama, carried 17,000 metric tons of cargo, about one-third of it food relief supplies for Africa. The unarmed freighter was navigating the vast Indian Ocean en route to Kenya.

Nine days into the voyage, the journey went awry 240 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia, where piracy is a virtual cottage industry. Four scrawny boys, none older than 19, approached the U.S.-flagged vessel in a small skiff. They were high from chewing an amphetamine-like leaf known as khat and carrying AK-47 assault rifles.

After a tense skirmish on the Maersk, during which the crew of 20 men took refuge in a locked engine room, Philips was forced to board a 28-foot fiberglass lifeboat with the pirates. Another five days passed, as the destroyer USS Bainbridge waited nearby for an opportunity to free him using psychological and technoloiical warfare tactics.

"I thought the first thing the pirates would do is take me out if they thought an attack was imminent," he recalled. "I really didn't see a good outcome."

Silently, Philips prayed and "said a few things to my wife, apologizing for the 3 a.m. phone call I imagined she would get to inform her that I was dead."

Andrea Phillips is an emergency room nurse at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington. She spent much of those five days fending off a media frenzy. "When I got home, there still were seven TV satellite trucks parked outside our house," her husband said.

During his captivity, Richard Phillips carried on limited conversations with his captors, who spoke very little English. "They asked me, 'What is your clan?' and I told them, 'American,'" he said. "They replied, 'No, what is your tribe?'"

He then acknowledged he was Irish, which became his moniker. "'They said, 'Irish, you problem.' I agreed: 'You got that right.'"

Green Mountain lifestyle

One of eight children born to parents who were teachers in Massachusetts, Phillips gave up pursuit of an international law degree to study at a maritime academy. Before graduating in 1979, he also worked as a cab driver in Boston.

"I tell my kids, 'Don't do well in school and you, too, can end up at sea," he said. Instead, his son Daniel, 24, is a microbiologist and daughter Mariah, 23, a graphics designer.

In Vermont for more than two decades, the family lives in a white farmhouse that dates back to the 1840s on 17 scenic acres, with a classic red barn across the road.

Employed by the same Virginia-based shipping company for 24 years, he has been captain of 13 different freighters. His trips, typically about 40 days each, take him all over the world. Every three-month work rotation is followed a three-month break.

Earlier dramatic incidents have included hurricanes and a 2004 fire in the engine room, when Phillips feared his crew might perish. But nothing else he endured ever attracted public attention.

The readjustment

Shortly after his return to the United States, Philips got a call from President Barack Obama, who had green-lighted the Navy's plan of action. Along with his wife, the captain accepted an invitation for a May 2009 tour of the White House.

Phillips has steadfastly insisted he was only doing his job, pointing to the Navy SEALs as the real heroes in the highjacking scenario. After his rescue, the Maersk continued on to Kenya but, shaken by the pirate encounter, he was taken aboard the Bainbridge.

"I'd wake up at 5.am every day crying like a little baby," he said, referring to an aftermath not included in the film. "I'd slap myself and try to remember how lucky I was to be alive."

One of the SEALs suspected he was undergoing some degree of post-traumatic stress and persuaded him to speak on the ship's phone with a Navy psychiatrist who told him there are chemicals in tears that can be a mechanism for healing.

"He suggested, 'Next time, don't stop yourself from crying.' So, the next morning, I just cried and cried for 45 minutes," Phillips recalled. "And that never happened again. I needed a catharsis to get it all out."

A bit of fame

The job of filmmaker apparently puzzles the parents of British director Paul Greengrass. "His father, a retired merchant mariner, thinks of him as a ne'er-do-well," Phillips said. "Paul said he has tried to explain that a movie is like a ship moving through the water. You have to get from point A to point B."

The cinematic ship titled Captain Phillips, a kinetic thriller, has been moving through the American cultural landscape, accompanied by enthusiastic reviews from critics and a lot of Oscar buzz. Adapted from his co-authored 2011 memoir, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea, the script was presumably compelling enough to interest of one of America's top movie stars.

The two men are close in age — Hanks is 57, Philips 58 — but there's not much of a physical resemblance.

"I told him he needed to gain a little weight and get better-looking," Phillips quipped.

He was on hand for the film's Oct. 1 Vermont sneak preview at the Majestic 10 in Williston, Vt. During a reception that preceded the screening, Phillips graciously posed in front of a gigantic Captain Phillips movie poster alongside any of the more than 600 ticket-holders keen on getting a souvenir snapshot.

At its world premiere on the Sept. 27 opening night of the New York Film Festival, Captain Phillips received a prolonged standing ovation from the audience.

On the red carpet, Hanks told reporters that during one his 2012 visits to Vermont, he'd watched a basketball game with Phillips. It was March Madness.

Asked for his assessment of the captain, Hanks offered an observation that paralleled Phlllips's view of him: "He's a down-to-earth guy."


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