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Mares: A Plague of Pirates

Two current films deal with cargo ship hijackings by Somali pirates. One is a fictional tale made in Denmark and the other is that special oxymoron, a documentary made in Hollywood.
Both are based on the deadly business of holding commercial shipping crews for ransom.
Both contrast the vastness of the ocean with the claustrophobia of impromptu prison cells or rank hide-outs.
Both demonstrate grudging respect for the desperate, jobless teen-aged fishermen turned gangsters in the failed state of Somalia.

And I give them both high marks for their depiction of the desperate battle of threats and wit between ghat-chewing Somalis with lethal Kalishnikov rifles and un-armed crews of massive Western freighters.
Tom Hanks, who plays Underhill Vermont resident Captain Rich Phillips, is the intellectual’s action hero, with little variation from man in charge to stoic captive. Through his grizzly beard and square glasses he chats up the pirate leader with a clunky Boston accent.
In the Danish movie, the captain is sick, so the cook is the key hostage, and he has the most fraught interactions with the hijackers. But the real star is the chief of the shipping company back in Copenhagen, 4000 miles away. We know he’s a tough negotiator because in the opening scenes we see him drive a hard bargain with a group of Japanese businessmen.
Now, he must simultaneously negotiate with the high-jackers, his bosses who press him to settle, and the families of the crew. His only weapons are the counsel of a hostage negotiator, a scratchy phone, and a FAX line with Omar, the English-speaking highjacker. Square jawed, in immaculate suits, he could pass for a naval officer. He even shoots out his cuffs as he begins his dialogue with Omar.
The Dane’s range of facial expression is even narrower than that of Hanks, but his presence and gestures are compelling. When Omar finally agrees to a ransom of three-point-five million dollars, reduced from fifteen, the Dane cracks only the thinnest of smiles.

Every scene in the Phillips film feels about a third too long. Perhaps because of a smaller budget, the Danish movie is tighter. Subscripts track the growing tension: “Day 15, Day 37, Day 68…” Nor do they have the U.S. Navy to ride in like cavalry. But Phillips does, and the last quarter of the American film resembles the hunt for Red October, with flashing screens, amber and blue lights, beeping klaxons, and Navy SEALS parachuting into the sea.

In the end, Hanks is taken aboard the Navy ship, safe, but covered in the blood of two captors slain by the SEALS. Tears roll down his cheeks, signaling his loss at their deaths.
In the Danish film, death comes off camera, but it’s a greater shock, because it’s so impulsive. The captain tries to save the cook’s wedding ring from a teenage hijacker, who, having extracted millions from the hijacking, still wants that tiny bit of gold.

All in all, the Danish hostage movie, and the Hollywood rescue movie make a powerful pair.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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