Review: Captain Phillips (Without a Paddle)

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Paul Greengrass (Bourne Supremacy) is a director known for handheld action sequences, obscured details and frenetic pacing, making him the least desirable person to direct a film set mostly at sea. Yet for all the counterintuitive casting, Greengrass demonstrates incredible care. In fact, one would presume the retelling of Captain Richard Phillips' autobiography, a story in which he's kidnapped by Somali pirates, would be carried out with watchful respect for the survivors (and it is). Despite the loving care, Captain Phillips is peppered with oddly comic moments.

Tom Hanks is the titular Captain Rich Phillips, a hard working leader with a particular appreciation for procedure. When he spots skiffs approaching with armed passengers he follows the drill and tells his crew to do the same. The pirates, by contrast, don’t have a rulebook; they do, however, have a boss (aka war lord) and expect penalties for leaving the cargo vessels with less than millions in hand. The pirates are tenacious, and their skeletal leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is a constant reminder their work is the outcome of extreme need: in contrast, the crew’s procedure is borne of comforting repetition. Perhaps that’s why the film feels like it has multiple false starts—by the time you reach the meat of the thriller (the Captain's sequestration on a lifeboat), you feel like you’ve watched four acts already.

We meet Phillips’ wife (Catherine Keener) just briefly. They don’t like their routine but they’re dutiful and they chose their jobs. When Phillips asks Muse about other lines of work he answers “maybe in America.” The somewhat portentous dialogue, especially the dialogue executed in the lifeboat, exists to prove that piracy is a business and Muse is an employee. Everyone is surviving, and Phillips isn’t the worst casualty in this boat. Ironically the film’s “every man has his reasons” philosophy, humanizes the pirates so extensively it competes with our All American affection for Hanks, Hollywood’s nicest guy.

Some of the film’s better moments are awkwardly comical, as when the soft-bellied first crew flounder at the sound of bullets, or how Hanks’ responds when blindfolded, but the moments when laughter bleeds into empathy are affecting, memorable and among the film’s best.

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