Tom Hanks is now championing the cause of the industry depicted in “Captain Phillips,” starring Hanks as Capt. Richard Phillips, real-life skipper of the U.S. Merchant Marine cargo ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. From what he learned in doing the role, the veteran actor said that U.S. budget cuts could hurt programs that use U.S.-flagged ships to ferry military supplies and aid around the world.
Hanks, who plays the skipper of the Maersk Alabama in the new movie, released Friday, said the maritime industry is crucial to the nation's economy.
"The world operates by it," Hanks said at a screening with leaders from the maritime industry in attendance. "These shoes would not be here, these cameras would not be here, unless guys like Rich Phillips saw to it that they got halfway around the world."
Hanks said he hopes “Captain Phillips” brings "a greater appreciation for the hard work" that merchant mariners do.
The film “Captain Phillips” and Hanks’ comments come as the U.S. maritime industry faces huge budget cuts. Phillips is supporting a campaign to fight against cuts that would reduce the size of the 60-vessel fleet.
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An official at the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots said that the film should be used as an example to show the importance of the security program.
The program, known as the Maritime Security Program and run by the U.S. Department of Transportation, spends $186 million annually to make sure the 60 ships are able to carry cargo for U.S. forces in conflict or for other government purposes.
During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, those ships carried 95 percent of the Defense Department’s cargo, Reuters quoted the organization as saying. A $12 million automatic budget cut is due to take effect this year and would eliminate four ships from the fleet.
“We are looking at a terrible situation where a funding anomaly of $12 million -- less than the cost of a highway overpass -- could deal a critical blow to our industry," Steven Werse, an official at the leading U.S. maritime organization, said. “You can look at the film as a microcosm of our industry: What the pirates could not take away, Congress could legislate away.”
In April 2009, Phillips was rescued by Navy Seal snipers after three Somali pirates disembarked the cargo ship on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean, near the Horn of Africa, taking Phillips with them. The rescue was authorized by President Barack Obama because Phillips was thought to be in imminent danger. The standoff lasted five days.
Somali pirates are known to lurk in the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Afrca looking to hijack and hold for a ransom crews as well as cargoes. At least 219 attacks occurred in the region in 2010, with 49 successful hijackings. Somali pirates also have attacked ships in the Gulf of Aden, along Somalia’s eastern coastline. In 2010 more than 1,180 hostages were taken at sea -- more than in any other year -- and 86 percent of those hostages were taken by Somali pirates.
Hanks said he was impressed with the importance of the trade and has gained a profound respect for mariners, the industry and the man on whom the movie is based.
"They have a lot of pressure on them," he said. "It's a very dangerous job as well as an important one, and you have to be accomplished to get it done.”
“This is acting of the highest order in a movie that raises the bar on what a true-life action thriller can do,” Travers wrote.