In the sewer that comprises much of modern cinema, three characterizations of men dominate the scene: the incredibly hip gay or metrosexual in touch with his feminine side, the overly aggressive, boorish, and/or insensitive lout who desperately needs to be, and the dazed and confused milquetoast wallowing in his sensitivity.
Bucking that trend and hearkening back to an era in film when men apparently didn’t need to be feminized, director Peter Weir delivers, in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
, a refreshingly realistic and honest portrayal of a group of men, uncorrupted by fashionable psychotherapeutic sentiments.
Based on Patrick O’Brian’s historical novels, Master and Commander chronicles the adventures of the crew of the British ship H.M.S. Surprize, whose mission is to burn, sink, or capture a French frigate terrorizing British merchant vessels in the South Atlantic in 1805. Russell Crowe fills the role of their commander, Captain Jack Aubrey, like a glove, solidifying his reputation (if Gladiator had not already done so) as one of the few leading men in Hollywood who can convincingly exhibit leadership. Crowe as Aubrey portrays a man devoted to his crew and their objective, inspiring the loyalty that readily enables the prosecution of their commission. The commander is not without his faults, though. His at times overzealous pride in the success of the mission, as his good friend Dr. Maturin (Paul Bettany) points out, puts the safety of his crew at greater risk, and his temper sometimes gets the better of him–but these flaws only serve to accentuate the nobility of his nature and the authenticity of the character.
Bettany as Dr. Maturin brings a cool, levelheaded reserve to the role that serves his character (and Aubrey) well, especially when Maturin is forced to perform abdominal surgery on himself. Despite the fact that his primary professional interest is the observation and analysis of animal species, there is no question in his mind as to his duty when he spots the enemy ship on the opposite side of an island, forcing him to abandon his collection of uncatalogued species in order to give his crew sufficient time to capture the ship.
Almost as impressive is the young Max Pirkis, who plays a 13-year-old midshipman forced to deal with the amputation of an arm and the loss of a close friend, trials extraordinary for any young person to bear. Yet this youthful sailor manages to maintain his confidence and resolve, despite his obvious pain, and demonstrates a maturity that belies his age–quite a contrast to the eternal adolescents we’re used to.
In other instances, Weir alternately depicts a young, exuberant officer who rises to the rank of captain, and another officer so filled with self-doubt that it consumes him.
This contrast reflects the range of character traits exhibited in men. Be they noble or otherwise, Weir always gives the impression they are genuine. As such, they reveal, as Aubrey suggests, who we are and who we hope to be–sentiments every man needs to reflect on.
–Michael Leaser works at the American Enterprise Institute.