It’s been a big year for the high seas. Last summer, we had the swashbuckling thrills of Pirates of the Caribbean, and now comes Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, another adventure involving really, really big ships. Of course, the difference between these two movies is vast; one is a piece of popcorn entertainment, while the other is a painstakingly detailed work of historical fiction potentially bound for numerous Oscar nominations.
Based on the popular novels by Patrick O’Brian, M&C takes place during the Napoleonic wars. Russell Crowe plays Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, a famous and respected captain in the British Navy. His ship, the HMS Surprise, is patrolling the coast of Brazil in search of a French ship that must be stopped down in order to keep the war from spreading. In the opening scene, the Surprise is blindsided by an attack from the bigger French ship. Undeterred, Aubrey vows to carry on with the mission. His men make sufficient repairs to the ship, and before long they are back on course.
Aubrey’s most trusted confidante is the ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who sometimes questions his captain’s determination to defeat the enemy. After all, the lives of many crewmen depend on the decisions he makes. Even so, Aubrey is an immensely popular and charismatic leader whose men would follow him anywhere. This particular adventure takes them several places, including the Galapagos Islands. Along the way, a strategy is plotted for the eventual showdown with the French ship.
Master and Commander is an interesting movie: with its big budget and spectacular action scenes, it looks like a Hollywood action movie, yet it feels like an art film. By that, I mean that the action is secondary to the exploration of a theme, and that theme is leadership. This is a study of what makes a good leader. We quickly surmise that Aubrey is the kind of man who earns respect from his crew. He is very knowledgeable about the tactics of battle, but he also has a silly sense of humor that he doesn’t mind sharing with his men. He knows everyone on his ship and treats them all with dignity and respect. At the same time, he is not afraid to make the tough calls when he needs to. There is a very powerful scene in which Aubrey has to choose between the lesser of two evils: sacrificing one man, or sacrificing many men. Without a lot of hand-wringing or second-guessing, he makes the call when it quickly needs to be made.
Another element of Aubrey’s leadership is shown in his dynamic with Maturin. Even when they don’t agree, there’s a lot of respect between them. During the middle of the movie, Maturin – a naturalist – wants to explore the Galapagos Islands because he knows there are undiscovered species there. Aubrey, hell-bent on finding the French ship, refuses to allow this. They have a confrontation about it in which each man outlines his feelings, and they openly debate the merits of each course of action. In the end, Aubrey knows what the expedition means to his friend, so he makes arrangements to return to the island later on. What’s interesting about these scenes is that they demonstrate the bond between the two men. They may disagree, but they also fundamentally understand and admire each other. Ultimately nothing comes between their friendship.
Director Peter Weir (The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Truman Show) has paid a lot attention to making the film feel accurate. He shows us things about life on a ship that we might not know, such as the fact that young adolescent boys were part of the crew. He also puts us right in the middle of battle, depicting in breathtaking style the damage caused when two ships are firing cannonballs at one another. The boom of the cannons firing, the splitting of wood, the sounds of crewmen shouting – it’s all shown in ultra-realistic style. This is the first time I can recall a movie really making me understand what these high seas battles were like. Weir really makes us feel like we are on the HMS Surprise. Through the use of sound editing, we occasionally hear the ship creaking in digital surround sound. Often this sound is incidental, but it goes a long way toward subliminally setting the scene.
The production values are first-rate, and so is the acting. Russell Crowe has a tough task here. Playing such an influential leader is not easy because, for the part to work, you have to absolutely believe that people would follow him. Crowe brings a natural charisma to the role. He’s funny when showing Aubrey’s lighter side, yet appropriately commanding when leading his men into battle. He brings across that essential quality that all great leaders have: you want to follow him. Paul Bettany is also quite good and, I hope, bound for an Oscar nomination. Although Maturin is not the leader of the ship, he is able to hold his own against Aubrey. Bettany is similarly able to hold his own against Crowe. The dynamic shared between the characters is also shared between the actors.
Master and Commander works on a lot of levels. The action is thrilling, the history is fascinating, and the characters are compelling. It’s rare for a movie to so deeply explore the idea of leadership, but this one does. And it does so by putting the audience right in the middle of the situation, then letting us relate to the crew members, who look at Jack Aubrey and feel safe under his watch.
( 1/2 out of four)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language. The running time is 2 hours and 19 minutes.
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