People who loved the feelgood story of a courageous sea captain fighting against pirates and heroically sacrificing himself for the greater good will probably want to skip this review.
People with a low tolerance for high-handed arrogance would do well to skip this book.
First off, I read it because I saw the movie and wanted to know how it compared to the true story. The first problem, however, is that Captain Philips is no Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks has a sense of humility that keeps him grounded, and a sense of shame that should have kept him out of this mess.
The second problem is that this isn't really a true-true story. But I'll get to that in a minute.
First, Richard Philips comes across here as a self-righteous, inconsistent, one man PR firm, and he's his only client. The book opens with the tensest moment in the lifeboat, pirates panicking, a gun to his head, but he's inconsistent even here, unable to keep straight from one sentence to the next how he was sitting or standing or kneeling or whether his hands were tied in front of him or stretched up over his head. Even while describing a single incident spanning a matter of minutes, his position changed so much I wondered if he wasn't so much tied as on a leash. A long leash.
Later, when he tells the entire story again, this problem will be much worse. He repeats a lot of things, but the confused bits don't get any clearer from it.
Then it goes back to his childhood and how tough he was, not like those "milquetoasts" and "bookish nerds" who just "hid their rooms until it was time to leave for college" due to not being able to walk down the street in his neighborhood. Not that good old Rich wasn't smart enough for college, because he totally went, he just quit after a year because it wasn't--physically challenging enough? Or something.
So he drove a cab until he decided to join the merchant marines, and don't be fooled, they're the only true heroes in the armed services. Most ships sunk, most deaths, moved all the weapons, don't get any recognition, no one cares about the guys who do all the work. He's always the guy who does all the work in his stories because all of his stories are about how awesome he is for doing all the work.
The marine academy was super tough when he went, but don't bother going now because it's probably all politically correct with no one even being allowed to raise their voices, which is probably why all the other sailors on his ship sucked so bad. Except for the ones who were so old they should be retired. All his former captains sucked, too (except one, who was, you guessed it, really really tough), so he learned from them how to be a better captain than anyone ever had been before, making him the captain everyone loves and respects and begs to work with.
There's a huge amount of padding here while two authors try to spread about 30 pages of material over 289 pages. He tells enough about his wife and their families for us to learn that their unique sense of humor is juvenile and horrible, and enough of his dating life to know that he's a complete stud who "got around plenty", but is at heart a romantic with lines from love letters that made me wonder at his IQ. And his wife's, for not only marrying him but also saving the letters as proof that she'd been warned. I can't fathom what would make either of them release their personal dreck in print, to the public.
When it comes to the actual pirate situation, Cap is all over it. He's been running drills, ordering up extra security, and bitching non-stop about his "great bunch of guys" crew's inability to get a single thing right, ever. Much as he complains that Navy standards are too high for a merchant ship, tries to hold half the crew and all of the ship to Navy standards, and dismisses certain unnamed men as being unable to reach any standard at all and therefor not worth training.
Then he can't figure out why the ship is taken in about 5 minutes.
This is the lack of consistency I'm talking about, which is also funny because in the course of repeating every compliment he's ever been paid, he includes one applauding his consistency. He has more personal philosophies, mottoes, moral codes, and words to live by than anyone I've ever encountered, and seemingly doesn't notice when they flat-out contradict each other. I know two people worked on the manuscript, but didn't he read it?
Oh, and according to his wife, he survived because she prayed for him. Even though she's a "bad Catholic" and "a bit of a heathen". See, she woke up Easter morning with a GOOD FEELING, and she heard her husband's voice calling her! So she started thinking about their "family motto"--one of possibly several hundred--"God is good, all the time. All the time, god is good", and got her friends saying it and they sang it in a church, so god rescued him. Because of course he did.
Naturally no one asked her if she'd have been singing "god is good, all the time" if she'd woken up with a bad feeling. And why should we? She had lots of bad feelings over those four days and not a word of praise or "thy will be done" passed her lips then.
But at least giving sky daddy some credit provided a break from Philips grabbing it all and grinding it in our faces.
Oh, and after bashing the Navy in really weird ways for literally the entire book, he ends by slobbering credit all over them in a whiplash-inducing reversal as soon as he's in physical contact with one of their ships. And then ever after. Though he gets the name of one of the ships wrong. And the name and nationality of one of his crewmembers, And just a whole pile of other little facts that apparently didn't matter because they were about other people.
Meanwhile, back in reality, this happened:
Since I've read the book and seen the movie, let me walk you through the high points.
Anonymous sailor says Phillips had a bad reputation for at least 12 years prior, known as a sullen and self-righteous captain. “No one wants to sail with him.”
Flies in the face of the movie version of Captain Courageous, and Philips' statements in the book about being strict and casual and calm and tough and reasonable and in charge and just the best mix of all possible personality traits.
However. While Philips doesn't write himself as sullen, and maintains that all of his (decent) crew members love him, his own words and descriptions of his actions show him to be self-righteous and bizarrely immature. Like, 14 year old immature.
Worst moment for me? After agonizing throughout the entire trip about a joke his now college-age son once made as a child about not having a father because his dad was gone all the time and didn't love him, what does he do upon seeing his son again and vowing to himself that he'll never again feel the way he did when he heard those words? Does he tell his son he loves him, always has and always will? Does he retire from sea?
No, he tells his son how much the joke hurt and orders him not to ever say it again. It never even crosses his mind that his son is probably being haunted by those words, too, and that they might be hurting him, too. Instead, he basically tells his son that those cruel words from childhood were on his mind the whole time. Like, last thoughts material. And they might've been, he certainly harped on them enough.
“The crew had begged Captain Phillips not to go so close to the Somali coast,” said Deborah Waters, the attorney who brought the claim. “He told them he wouldn’t let pirates scare him or force him to sail away from the coast.”
Now a well known fact, Philips never mentions being told to stay off the coast. Instead he stresses how, with motherships, pirates can be literally anywhere anyway, so one may as well sail through their front yards as make any effort to avoid them.
Phillips had taken command of the Maersk in late March 2009. Left for him, says the crew member, was a detailed anti-piracy plan now used by all ships per the International Maritime Organization. Should pirates get too close, the crew should cut the lights and power and lock themselves below deck.
“He didn’t want anything to do with it, because it wasn’t his plan,” says the crew member. “He was real arrogant.” Phillips says he knows nothing about such a plan.
Also not mentioned in the book, but plausible by Philips' own account. He refused to discuss possible piracy for as long as possible and berated a crewmember for asking what they should do if pirates board the ship. Philips writes that he didn't want to talk about it because it scared the men, that there would be nothing they could do anyway, and in a last self-serving dig says the sailor should have asked in private <i>before they left port</i>. Presumably because fewer men would have heard and been scared, but he also makes it clear that a man who even considers the possibility of being boarded by pirates isn't fit to sail in pirate water. (Having previously made clear that there was no time to discuss anything with anyone between arriving at the ship and leaving port.)
He sounds like a man mystified at carrying a spare tire because everyone knows if you get a flat there's just nothing you can do. Crewmembers suggest things, like safe rooms, and Philips writes that he agreed and was pleased to see them finally thinking for themselves. Later he will repeat many of these things as his idea, as if he hadn't already written the other part.
Phillips has admitted that, on board, he got seven e-mails about increased piracy off Somalia — each exhorting ships to move farther offshore by at least 600 miles.
Again, no mention of warnings in the book.
The Maersk was 235 miles off the coast, says the crew member, though Phillips has since rounded that number up to 300. [Confirmed now to be 240 miles.--ed]
“I couldn’t tell you exactly the miles,” Phillips tells The Post. “I don’t know.”
Really? You don't know? After bragging through several pages about being the best guy with the charts and compasses on another ship and always, always getting the numbers right?
Phillips ignored every missive and later admitted he didn’t share these warnings — though they were not sent exclusively to him.
Certainly doesn't explain to the reader why he didn't tell the crew he was deliberately sailing them less than half the recommended distance off the coast.
In fact, says this crew member, the Maersk veered off course by 180 degrees south — this was during the first attack, on April 8. Phillips denies this, and says the boat only picked up speed.
He may deny it now, but it's in the book. He wrote about doing it.
“We said, ‘You want us to knock it off and go to our pirate stations?’ ” the crew member recalls. “And he goes, ‘Oh, no, no, no — you’ve got to do the lifeboats drill.’ This is how screwed up he is. These are drills we need to do once a year. Two boats with pirates and he doesn’t give a s- -t. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
At first, Phillips maintains this is a lie.
Again, that's how Philips wrote it. They were doing a fire drill when they saw the pirate boats and he ordered them to finish it. Took over an hour, by his own account.
The Maersk eventually made a narrow escape, and Phillips ordered it back to its original route.
Original route, as opposed to the deviation he says in his book that he ordered, but now for whatever reason denies.
“Phillips didn’t say what he wanted to do,” says the crew member. “His plan [was], when the pirates come aboard, we throw our hands in the air and say, ‘Oh, the pirates are here!’ The chief engineer said, ‘We’re going downstairs and locking ourselves in.’ One of the mates said, ‘Let’s go down. We’re on our own.’ ”
They hid in the engine room, in 130 degree heat, for 12 hours. Phillips and three other crew members were held at gunpoint, yet Phillips tells The Post things weren’t that dire. “The ship,” he says, “was never actually taken.”
According to his book, Philips ordered the crew to hide in their safe rooms, secretly radioed coded messages to them by talking into a radio right in front of the pirates, and mercilessly bashes in print a sailor who didn't understand the newly invented (on the spot, by Philips, because why prepare and have one in place?) code and actually obeyed his captain.
He says several times throughout that the ship was "taken", "seized", "in the hands of pirates"--the word "hijacked" got thrown around a lot. It was dire enough when he was writing, apparently.
Chief Engineer Mike Perry, who has a small presence in the film, was perhaps the most heroic. He led most of the crew downstairs and locked them in; he disabled all systems; he attacked the chief pirate, seizing him and using him as a bargaining chip for Phillips.
This guy gets no credit. He's just tough and doing what the captain would have done, if he wasn't SO busy doing everything else all by himself. Though, unlike all but a couple of other men, he at least gets his name mentioned.
For some of the crew, it was too much. In their version, Phillips was the victim of a botched exchange. In 2009, he told ABC News he was taken after promising to show the pirates how to operate their escape boat. His book was packaged as the story of a man who gave himself up for his crew, which Phillips later said was a false narrative spread by the media. Today he tells The Post, “I was already a hostage,” but remains vague on the exchange.
The book tries to have this both ways. Everyone was a hostage on the Alabama, only Philips was a hostage, he wasn't a hostage until he left the ship, he wasn't a hero, all he cared about was his crew and he was willing to die for them--and everything he now calls "the media's false narrative" is based on his own words. He's vague on a lot of stuff, but not how brave and humble and better than you he is.
Not all of the crew cooperated with the movie, and those who did were paid as little as $5,000 for their life rights by Sony and made to sign nondisclosure agreements — meaning they can never speak publicly about what really happened on that ship.
And now Sony's bought the truth from the other witnesses so Philips, with his inability to think for a minute about anything but himself, or be at all consistent while doing that, gets to tell the official story.
But even now the truth is leaking out. Save yourself this horrible book and just read about what happened online. I'll be over here trying not to speculate on why he made such a point about the pirates being aged 22 to 28, for sure no younger than 22, when it had been proven by the time he started writing that they were all 18 and under.