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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Without a Paddle
by Donald Levit

“Robert Redford as you’ve never seen him before” in that he is seen through all of All Is Lost but barely heard. On 13 July, 4:50 PM, 1,700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits, his voiceover opens for a dozen lines of apology that could be addressed to some ex or child, lover or friend, to the world in general, or to himself. Then a proud assertion of having fought to the bitter end, and a concluding “I will miss you.” The rest is silence aside from “Help me” repeated as a humongous container freighter passes by unnoticing, for all the world unmanned, of the same Maersk Line as Captain Phillips’ hijacked vessel.

His unnamed Our Man’s tragedy and triumph plays out against a subtle score that does what music should do, that is, contribute without calling attention to itself. Mostly nautical sounds make up this sound track that is thus more effective than that of earlier this year’s raucously annoying Leviathan.

Director-writer J.C. Chandor and Redford spoke of the rigors of the largely Baja location shoot. But their hundred-seven minutes avoids easy beauties of maritime nature, using only a few underwater shots of man and capsized then righting itself 1970s Bear boat or of small schools of fishes and, only late, a limited supply of film-standby sharks.

At their New York Film Festival press Q&A, the director praised the physical condition of his famously outdoorsy athletic star, now seventy-six, while indicating that most who had already watched the film had had their expectations as to how it would end turned upside-down.

In point of fact, that resolution is ambiguous and could intimate vindication in life or in a death dream, or else failure, however one chooses to see it. But, despite the initial physical cause of the dilemma, plus a plastic jerrican side tossed overboard, this is in any case no ecological plea. In the tradition of Crane, London and Hemingway, it is unsermonized Man against Nature at the same time as Man against Himself.

Rammed eight days earlier in mid-Indian Ocean by a bright Howon cargo container, the thirty-foot one-man fiberglass-hull racing yacht Virginia Jean had a hole torn low enough above the waterline to take in water, while polluting capitalism’s consignment of cheap slow-biodegradable made-in-Asia sneakers floated away.

This captain of his soul master of his fate never panics and only once mutters what sounds a four-letter expletive. Neither in sorrow nor in anger, he does not talk to or berate himself or Divinity or Fate. Not a jot is revealed about his past: his is only this present moment.

Communication and navigation technology disabled, he is on his own. Calm, resourceful as the American male strong silent myth, he follows training licensing procedure, improvises where he must and reads emergency instruction manuals when he needs to. How the still strawberry blond stays un-blistered let alone not sun-fried, only once donning and discarding his straw hat, is a quibble, for focus is close-up careful on what he does do right.

And he does indeed seem about to emerge unscathed, x-ing his chart progress across a Separation Line into shipping lanes. But in life, or in death, reward does not necessarily come to those who have played the game fairly and done, if not always the correct thing, at least the best they could. Sudden squalls, random acts of not hostile but indifferent forces, complicate the best-laid plans. “Fair” and “unfair” are human constructs, meaningless to the cosmos. The measure of man, and of a man, lies not in his words but in his actions. Not all is lost.

(Released by Roadside Attractions and rated “PG-13” for strong language.)

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