WHALLONSBURG — He has survived a famous pirate attack, seen his story turned into a movie and traveled the world as a merchant marine.
But on a recent Sunday, Captain Richard Phillips spent a peaceful afternoon at the Whallonsburg Grange Hall.
He was there as a special guest of the Champlain Valley Film Society, which was screening the Oscar-nominated movie “Captain Phillips.” The movie is based on the 2009 hijacking of Phillips’s ship, the Maersk Alabama, by Somali pirates.
Afterwards, Phillips, who lives in Vermont, answered questions from the packed crowd.
He described the movie as largely accurate, but added, “It is a movie, and it also compresses five days to two hours.”
He said that resulted in changes in time and scheduling.
As for being portrayed by Tom Hanks, Phillips said, “I think Tom Hanks is a good actor. I’m not really impressed by actors, so I didn’t really care.”
RETURNED TO SEA
Phillips did care about going back to life at sea, which he did 14 months after his ordeal.
In the intervening time, he had written his book and had dealings with Hollywood. He described his return to sea as “a relief.”
All but one of the crew members from that voyage have also returned to sea, Phillips said, adding that he had recently worked with his bosun from that time.
Some crew members have sued the shipping company, alleging that the ship was dangerously close to the Somali coast when the pirates attacked.
“I think that’s just the litigious nature of society today,” Phillips said.
He talked about some ironic aspects of his experience, as well as some dramatic ones.
“It was the first ship I’d been on that didn’t have weapons,” he said — although he had previously been on some ships where the only weapon was a pistol. He believes armed security forces provide advantages for cargo ships.
‘REMAIN A PERSON’
He also described the personal dynamics involved in spending long hours on a lifeboat as the prisoner of the pirates.
“I felt I had to remain a person in their eyes, so that if they’re going to kill me, they’re going to kill a person. There were times we laughed, there were times they yelled, there were times I yelled.”
Once, he recalled, the pirates were desperate to light cigarettes. Phillips knew where the matches were but had no intention of helping.
The pirates took a flashlight apart to try to light the cigarette, which seemed absurd to Phillips. To his surprise, they found a way to make it work.
“I laughed at them, and they laughed at me.”
FACED WITH DEATH
Of course, such moments were rare. On a somber note, Phillips said that one pirate would tell him, “You will die from a Somali bullet, and I will die from an American bullet.”
During those times, Phillips inevitably looked back on his life. He thought about his wife and children.
“I always believed that if I could be on my deathbed and chuckle, it was a sign of a good life.”
As he considered the possibility of death at the hands of the pirates, he said, “I felt I’d had a good life, even though I would have chosen a different ending.”
When the Navy SEALS shot three of the pirates, Phillips was crouching down in the lifeboat, and he remembers thinking that the pirates were shooting each other — since they had been quarreling among themselves.
Not until he was on the main deck of the Navy ship, he said, did it really sink in that he had been rescued.
Regarding the events, Phillips said, “I’ve always considered myself lucky” as opposed to “intelligent or brave or anything like that.”
Following his rescue, he received help once again from a Navy SEAL — this time, in an unexpected way.
“He told me, ‘It doesn’t always end like this, and we have to talk to someone. You may have to talk to someone.’”
That advice helped him to speak to a psychologist about his experience, despite, Phillips said, his own New England reserve.
WOKE UP CRYING
The psychologist asked him if he felt sorry for the pirates.
“There’s no Stockholm syndrome here,” Phillips said, referring to the psychological condition wherein hostages defend their captors. “Put me back in there with weapons, and we’ll see who comes out.”
As the psychologist continued to ask him questions about his reaction, Phillips told him about something he was experiencing. Since his rescue, he woke up every morning crying and didn’t know why.
He had been telling himself to snap out of it and just be grateful he was alive.
However, the doctor helped him to realize that this was a natural way of dealing with the situation, and Phillips let the tears flow for 40 minutes one morning, experiencing a sense of relief.
After that, he said, the reaction did not return.
“It does help to purge and to talk to someone who can help you,” he concluded.
Asked how his life has changed since the release of the movie, Phillips answered: “It really hasn’t changed.”
Then, he laughed. “I do things like this,” he said, referring to the afternoon’s event. “I wouldn’t have done this four years ago.”
A movie screening in Whallonsburg had made its way into a varied and unusual life.AT THE MOVIES The Champlain Valley Film Society will be screening movies at the Whallonsburg Grange Hall every other weekend through May 24. The screenings are normally on Saturdays and cost $5 for adults, $2 for those under 18. Upcoming titles include: Feb. 15: "All is Lost." March 1: "Gravity." March 15: "12 Years a Slave." March 29: Animated and live-action Oscar shorts. More information is available at www.cvfilms.org.