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Making a Mark

Master and Commander does, The Human Stain does not.

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Who is the "Next John Wayne"? John Wayne was a leader. In films he commanded squadrons from every war since the Revolutionary all the way up to Vietnam, led assaults against Native Americans, Nazis, the French, the English, everyone, AND he was Genghis Khan! Were he alive today (at age 97), he would doubtlessly be figuring out how to cinematically take out Saddam, Osama, and whatever other evildoers might be out there working to undo the American Way. (Watch out, France!) While Clint Eastwood may be a good candidate for Hollywood's Numero Uno Macho Tough Guy based on his rÇsumÇ of flinty cops and cowboys, I submit Russell Crowe as the inheritor of the Duke's brand of hunky, sensitive command. Equally at home as captain of a warship, wrasslin' tigers in the Colosseum, or bedding Meg Ryan, Crowe is the real deal.

In Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Crowe is Jack Aubrey, captain of the Surprise, charged with capturing or destroying the Acheron, a French vessel that, unbeknownst to Aubrey, outmans, outguns, and outsails the Surprise. That is really the whole plot. Aubrey's orders are to capture the ship, and by the end, we find out if they succeed. The narrative is as singleminded as the Surprise's captain, and the in-between story is as incidental as life at sea: storms, mutinies, accidents, droughts, life, death. Each of these details is brought to life in almost 3-D vividness -- particularly the storms, the best I've seen on film.

Master and Commander is grand storytelling. The canvas is broad (taking the crew of the Surprise from the northeast of South America all the way to the Galapagos Islands), its characters are heroic in their resolves yet complicated by their conflicting desires and tactics, and there is no fiercer lady than the sea herself. Incidentally, if the word "her" or "she" ever comes up, it is in exclusive reference to the ship, because there is no female character in this film. On a pit stop in the Indies, Cap'n Jack has some flirty glances with a passing native beauty, but she has no lines and there are no Geena Davises or Kate Winslets also sailing the ocean blue -- which, I imagine, contributes to the tension that mounts in a crew that is dedicated to their fair captain but grows ever more impatient with a long journey they do not always understand.

The key relationship in the film is between the captain and his best friend, ship's doctor Stephen Maturin. Maturin is played by Paul Bettany, who played another Russell Crowe best-buddy (with a twist) in A Beautiful Mind. The prickly Crowe must have enjoyed the collaboration or Bettany probably wouldn't have resurfaced in one of his films. Bettany is unrecognizable from the earlier film (brown-haired and festooned with fashionable 1805 sideburns). Bettany is Spock to Crowe's Kirk. They are, together, the intellect and the intuition, the logic and the action. They respect each other immeasurably even when relentlessly opposed. Jack is obviously the more daring of the two, but lest we think Stephen is any less strong, we witness him surgically removing a bullet from his own rib after being accidentally shot by a crewman. This scene, where Jack can barely watch the proceedings, is a telling testament to the bond between these two disparate men. We get to know other crew members only barely, and I think this is how it must be for a captain of a ship. There are only fleeting moments here and there that permit intimacy or acquaintance. As a leader, one makes the most of them.

This is a gorgeous, rousing film, and its depiction of life and war at sea is not soon to be bettered.

In The Human Stain, Anthony Hopkins is stately college dean Coleman Silk. Silk professes the classics -- that is, until one day when he notes the semester-long absence of two students. Setting an example before his class, he asks, "Are they spooks?" Having never seen them before, he could not have known that those students are black. A scandal ensues, and Silk's fitness to teach is questioned to the point of a forced resignation. Silk plans immediate legal action but is interrupted by the death of his wife on that same day. He blames the school.

Months later, he arrives at the secluded lake home of acquaintance Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a writer who Silk thinks will want to author his story. Zuckerman has demons of his own, but Silk's outsized enthusiasm and demand for attention draw him slowly out of his shell. Soon, they are the best of friends, and Silk finally has a confidante with whom to share his most recent surprise: his affair with a cleaning lady half his age.

Enter Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farely. Unschooled, unmannered, and poor, Faunia is a fallen debutante whose childhood abuse sent her running away from her privileged upbringing straight to the wrong side of the tracks. In fact, during one particularly tense scene with her psycho ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) threatening violence against her, she calmly asks Silk, "Is this too 'trailer park' for you?" Not for Silk. But Faunia is too "trailer park" for Silk's colleagues, who send anonymous, snippy notes as he tries to gain legal footing against his college. Even Zuckerman cautions him about what he's getting into, after an embarrassing scene in a fancy restaurant when Faunia can't handle being introduced to Silk's more sophisticated life. Silk, now estranged from the whole rest of his life, can only reconcile the vast differences between him and Faunia when all of the cards are on the table. She has baggage, yes, but he has a secret that has been haunting him for 50 years: He's black.

Telling you that Silk is black is not a Crying Game-like spoiler. We know this early on in a series of flashbacks, as we see a young Silk (Wentworth Miller) come of age amid racism, classism, and the self-loathing that goes with being so light-skinned as to be passed off as white in a society (1948, y'all!) that favors it. Silk, as we come to learn, has worked hard to forget his modest upbringing in favor of escaping to a life of refinement and opportunity. Faunia, conversely, has abandoned a life of abusive affluence for a baser, poorer life where she can control and select those who abuse her.

The Human Stain, despite its Oscar pedigree and fantastic cast, is a mess, unfortunately. Better film actors can scarcely be found than Hopkins and Kidman, and sadly, both are miscast here. They're great, mind you, but Hopkins (who also attempted black with a stage Othello that received, ahem, mixed reviews) is entirely too British for the role. Even though his character is explained to have spent time at Oxford, at no point do we see any trace of his distinctly American roots. Similarly, casting one of the world's most recognizably beautiful women as a trailer-trash cleaning lady is a challenge that Kidman's brave, unglamourously drawn performance only partly contests. She and Hopkins hit all of the right notes, but neither can escape what they are -- which I guess is the point of the movie anyway, so bravo?

Sad too is the misuse/underuse of frequent best-supporting-actor nominees Ed Harris and Gary Sinise. Harris fares best, allowed to provide some complexity and nuance to the otherwise typical redneck husband type. Sinise, however, is given little more to do than listen to Hopkins meditate on aging and Viagra. His character's own renaissance is neglected entirely to make way for the Big Affair that is ruining/reinventing/renewing his friend. I would like to have seen this as a useful parallel. As it is, Sinise plays the role of thankless narrator.

As it is with many flashback movies (the literary Possession comes to mind), the scenes from the past are more interesting than those of the present. The attention to detail, for one, distinguishes them from those where contemporary emotional politics are taken for granted (incorrectly) as more interesting than history. The portrait of Silk's 1948 black family is so finely drawn (played with definitive dignity by Harry Lennix and Anna Deavere Smith as his upright parents) and Miller's steely performance as the young Silk so hotly understated that the contemporary scenes of the repressed Hopkins cannot help but pale by comparison.

There are two movies here, and despite the great skill of The Human Stain's leads, theirs is not the better of the two.

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