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'Captain Phillips' review: Were my knuckles always so white?

***1/2 (out of four)

A boat traveling between Oman and Kenya doesn’t have cabins full of partying tourists blasting “Blurred Lines.” The crew probably doesn’t take the job because they love traversing the dangerous territory around the horn of Africa.

In the riveting, real-life-based “Captain Phillips,” the titular American leader (Tom Hanks, better than he’s been in years) and his men operate a cargo ship because work in their industry, like many others, is scarce. The word “opportunity” probably gets little use in Somalia, of course, where armed men depart with plans to hijack a vessel and demand a ransom. “Just business,” says Muse (first-time actor Barkhad Abdi) to Phillips after the pirate leads his quartet aboard, and he means it. He’s following orders, just like his opponents do.

As with the stunning “United 93,” director Paul Greengrass expertly and frighteningly disintegrates the line between truth and re-enactment. “Captain Phillips” offers no certainty regarding who will live or die, or a sense that the good guys inevitably win because that’s just how it goes. Aboard this ship, tension sustains as far as the water spans.

On a related note: “Gravity” is a good movie. But anyone who thinks that amazing visual achievement represents the peak of a well-crafted thriller should notice how “Captain Phillips” does a better, subtler job of sprinkling its emotion and ideas. We don’t get to know many characters very well, and it’s a generalization to broadly suggest rich countries pilfer third-world waters. Yet writer Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games,” “Shattered Glass”), working from--SPOILER ALERT!!!—the book Phillips co-authored about his experience, intelligently establishes the way Phillips and Muse underestimate and marginalize each other. This quietly perceptive film, considering the captain’s perspective and his enemy’s, highlights the importance of both timing and deception in these life-or-death situations.

Promises are made; deals are broken. Guns are fired. Important distinctions emerge indicating the attackers’ varying levels of humanity; they likewise continually evaluate their own survival tactics. A leader begins to look very different from a person in charge, and each side discovers that help may not always arrive on time, or at all.

One thing’s for sure: I need to read that book.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U



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