It was like something out of a movie. That's what people all around the world were saying in April 2009 when a small band of Somali raiders hijacked the Maersk Alabama cargo ship in the Indian Ocean and held its crew for ransom, triggering a deadly standoff with U.S. Navy warships. Pirates hadn't captured an American vessel since the early 1800s, and the outcome hinged on the actions and decisions of a single blue-collar Everyman, a veteran merchant mariner named Capt. Richard Phillips.
One of those people who thought it sounded like a Hollywood film happened to be Tom Hanks, so...now it is one. He consulted with the real-life Phillips, who emphasized he was no action hero. ''I am truly an average guy,'' Phillips tells EW via email while in the South China Sea. He hopes the film shows ''we are truly stronger than we know. We can do more than what we think we can do. There is a reserve in all of us that is very seldom tapped.''
When Hanks signed on to star, the two-time Oscar winner also helped recruit director Paul Greengrass, who'd previously made a film about a true-life hijacking with the 9/11 movie United 93. This one felt different, however. ''One of the things that attracted me was it wasn't about terrorism,'' says the British filmmaker. ''It was about crime. Armed piracy in the modern world is organized crime, and like organized crime in your country and mine, it has its roots historically in poverty.''
Greengrass held an open call in Minnesota and Ohio to cast the hijackers, and the four leads went to Somali immigrants who had never acted professionally before: Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, and Mahat M. Ali. ''They bring a humanity to it,'' Greengrass says. ''You understand how desperate they are, without for a second being under any illusions about how dangerous they are.''