WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Paul Greengrass' new thriller, "Captain Phillips," is torn from the headlines, but the British director sees the story of an American ship captain's ordeal with Somali pirates as a timeless tale of poverty-stricken criminals and a run-in with the law.
"These young men get involved for the same reason that young men got involved in organized crime in the major cities of America in the '20s and '30s ... or Britain's highwaymen in the 18th century," Greengrass said in an interview.
"It's old history, isn't it, these stories? It took an old story and told it in a very new place," added the director, who is best known for "The Bourne Supremacy" film franchise.
"Captain Phillips" stars Oscar-winner Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was seized by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa in 2009. Amid rave reviews and Oscar buzz, the real-life drama distributed by Sony's Columbia Pictures unit opens in U.S. cinemas on Friday.
Four Somali-Americans make their screen debuts as the pirates who kidnapped Phillips in the hope of a multi-million-dollar ransom, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to send two U.S. Navy ships and a contingent of Navy SEALS to the rescue.
It was the first time Obama, then in office for just three months, had dispatched the SEALS on such a high-profile mission. Two years later, the same special forces unit, including some of the same men, undertook the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.
Navy officers and others involved in the rescue, as well as Hanks, Phillips, Greengrass and Barkhad Abdi, who plays the lead pirate, attended a screening in Washington last week.
Greengrass, a former journalist, wanted the maritime saga to be balanced, telling an exciting story, but shedding light on the dire conditions in Somalia, an impoverished nation struggling for stability under a new government after decades of war.
Perhaps best known to Americans as the scene of the disastrous "Blackhawk Down" battle in Mogadishu 20 years ago this week, the country is back in headlines after a failed raid by SEALS to capture a leader of the al Shabaab Islamist militant group on Saturday.
Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for last month's attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed 67 people.
Piracy, that thrived amid lawlessness and poverty, has eased thanks to tighter security since 2009, but it has cost the international shipping industry - and the world economy - billions of dollars since the mid-2000s.
Greengrass said he tried for a nuanced portrayal of the pirates in the film and not Hollywood's clichéd "moustache-twisting villains."
The director said he deliberately included a reference to international fishing in Somali waters to make the point that over-fishing and toxic-waste dumping weakened the industry, making piracy more attractive - and international.
"The ... warlords moved in and gangsters moved (in) and it became highly organized international crime, worth hundreds of millions of dollars," he said. "The godfathers, of course, were not in Somalia at all, they were out in Nigeria, Europe or in some cases in the U.S."
In one of the film's most memorable moments, the lead pirate, Muse, makes clear he cannot give up and go home with the $30,000 cash Phillips has offered because of what he might face for coming back with so little after seizing a massive ship.
"I've got bosses," Muse tells Phillips, whom he has nicknamed "Irish." The highly trained and experienced Phillips has none of it, shooting back, "We all have bosses."
Greengrass noted the desperation of Muse, who captured the 17,375 deadweight-ton ship using only a skiff, ladder and a few guns, and then spent five days in a standoff with the U.S. Navy.
"One of the truths you get from it is there's nothing more dangerous than a young man with a gun who's got nothing to lose," he said.
"What you get is a complicated picture of a desperate, violent young man engaged in a dirty business, willing to stop at nothing to try and get what he wants. But more frightened of going home than giving up. And it has humanity, but it's not sentimental either. It's authentic, I think," he said.
The real Muse, whose full name is Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse and is now 23, is in a U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, serving a more than 33-year sentence handed down in 2010 for his role in the hijacking.
Editing by Eric Kelsey and David Brunnstrom