Kosher Movies: Captain Phillips

Gilad Shalit is a name I know from living in Israel and from reading the newspapers for a number of years. He was kidnapped by terrorists and after several years was exchanged for over a thousand men incarcerated in Israeli prisons. It was a controversial deal, the merits of which have been and are still being debated. What struck me, however, was the underlying premise behind the deal; namely, that we have to do everything we can to save the life of one man.

This burning desire to save lives animates Richard Phillips in the exciting thriller Captain Phillips, which depicts the true account of the hijacking of his ship off the coast of Africa by pirates. Captain Phillips is the consummate professional, taking all precautions against piracy on the high seas. Nonetheless, he falls prey to opportunists who see his cargo and shipmates as ransom targets worth lots of money.

The story begins on March 23, 2009, when Captain Phillips is preparing to leave his home in Vermont to commandeer the Maersk Alabama, a commercial container ship, around the horn of Africa. Simultaneously in Somalia, a group of mercenaries is shown preparing to hijack a commercial ship to gain millions in ransom money.

When the captain arrives in Oman and inspects the ship, he discovers that many of the ladders, hatches, and doors are unlocked. Immediately, he announces security measures and emergency drills in light of warnings he is receiving about pirates in the shipping lanes that he is traversing.

Once on the ocean, he observes two skiffs quickly approaching the ship. Phillips contacts the U.S. and the UK Maritime Emergency agencies to apprise them of the potential piracy situation, after which he maneuvers the ship to try to elude the pursuers. When the pirates get closer and Phillips realizes that the pirates have a maritime radio, he sends a false message to a fictitious ship informing it that his ship is armed, which it is not, and that military help is on the way. Some of the pirates believe the transmission and give up the chase, but one of the skiffs remains in hot pursuit.

The pirates successfully board the ship in spite of its superior speed. They take control, but not before Phillips instructs his crew to hide below deck. Phillips deliberately misleads the pirates to allow time for help to arrive to rescue the crew and the boat. Soon the ship’s whereabouts are discovered by the military, and battleships shadow the pirates who have kidnapped the captain and taken him away in a lifeboat. Moreover, a SEAL team is dispatched to assist with the rescue.

What impressed me as I watched the film is how professional and competent was everyone involved in the rescue operation. Everyone had a job and they executed their tasks perfectly. Captain Phillips was always focused, thoughtful, and mindful of every contingency. In spite of the fact that the ship was hijacked, an unavoidable circumstance, he did his best to protect his crew, even putting himself in harm’s way. Nothing mattered except the safety of his men.

A Talmudic text tells us that “he who saves one life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.” Saving life is an ultimate value in Judaism. When you rescue one person from possible death, you not only save him but his descendants as well. Richard Phillips maintains his focus on the safety of his crew despite harrowing threats. It is this equanimity and steadfastness to his goal in the face of adversity that makes him a hero for our times, an exemplar of leadership which manifests itself in noble behavior, not a leadership based upon position alone.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at
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