AN AUSTRALIAN WRITER recently observed that Master and Commander, the new Russell Crowe sea epic, is more than "Lethal Weapon with wigs." Scarily, it could have been just that. Mel Gibson was once touted for the lead role of Capt. Jack Aubrey, the swashbuckling Royal Navy officer at the center of the film and co-star of the 20-volume book series by Patrick O'Brian. Fortunately, Peter Weir avoided the buddy movie trapand Gibson's muggingand made a terrific historical-action film that is well acted, dramatic, and relevant.
The story on the screen is ripe for projections from viewers who are tempted to look for inspiration in the brave souls manning and commanding the Napoleonic-era British warship Surprise, especially in this time of war and with a U.S. presidential campaign looming. Leadership is on many minds.
IN A RECENT COLUMN (See Mossback, "Master & Conundrum," Nov. 19), I wrote that Aubrey had many of the fine qualities Democrats should look for in their nominee to take on George W. Bush in 2004, trying to head off a neocon co-option of the character. I also noted that in some respects, the character of Aubrey (in the movies and the books) bears a resemblance to Bill Clinton in that both are over-grown golden boys.
At least one reader wrote to tell me the Clinton/Aubrey comparison was a hideous joke (see letter). On the other hand, the Nov. 14 Boston Globe reported that among the "actors" previously touted for the role of Aubrey on a book-fan e-mail list have been Harrison Ford, Nick Nolte, Liam Neeson, and Bill Clinton. Did I mention Meatloaf?
With a different perspective, John Carey, a defense analyst and retired U.S. Navy commander, wrote in the Nov. 23 Washington Times (where else?) that Clinton is the antithesis of the kind of leader we need because "tolerance" was his motto. "What we should do is re-instill some of Capt. Jack Aubrey's watchwords into our culture. Duty, leadership, hard work, sacrifice, and teamwork are still pretty good characteristics to develop. And let's not let 'tolerance' continue down the road toward 'anything goes.'"
Another view of how our moral fabric could be improved by the film comes from Michael A. Hoffman II, a historical revisionist and Holocaust denier whose Nov. 17 review of the film was forwarded to me by a reader. Hoffman takes the movie to task for whitewashing the issue of "white slavery," namely the Royal Navy's use of involuntarily "pressed" sailors, but he finds some merit in it: "If we would have a future, we will train up a generation of Christian gentlemen like those which Master and Commander holds aloft for our admiration and emulation." Goosestep onward, Christian soldiers!
A NUMBER OF MOSSBACK readers sent in their own comparisons and dissenting opinions. One warned, "The Dems should beware of emulating the fabulous character, Jack Aubrey. That would be pure [Ronald] Reagan."
Another began by complaining that politicizing the movie was ruining the fun. "It used to be that I went to the movies to escape the everyday realities of modern life. Now, with pundits such as yourself and Mr. [Charles] Krauthammer also doing movie reviews and how they pertain to contemporary politics and current events, where can I escape to?" He suggests he might take up knitting.
However, caught up in it, the same reader cannot resist the lure of the Aubrey-for-president game. He notes that a number of the Democratic contenders have Aubrey-like qualities. John Kerry showed courage in battle, Dick Gephardt has integrity, Joseph Lieberman displays cunning, Howard Dean is a "man of action." But, he writes, "Historically, there really is only one Democratic presidential candidate who had the right mix and the right message. And surprise, it's not John F. Kennedy, but . . . William Jennings Bryan."
No way you saw that coming. Populist, antiwar, pro-labor, Bryan was a strong, moral opponent of imperialism and globalization. He was also a three-time presidential loser. The correspondent predicts that if Dean is the nominee, he'll do better than 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern, guessing Dean will carry Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and D.C. Wow. Six whole states plus the District of Columbia. In return for my spoiling his escapism, he's spoiled my week.
A more upbeat assessment comes from reader Kevin Orme, who finds parallels between Aubrey and "Give 'em Hell" Harry Truman. Among other traits, Truman was an optimistremember how he rallied the people during his whistle-stop campaign? He was a man of actionhe fired Gen. Douglas McArthur, dropped the A-bomb, and resisted McCarthyism. He was cunninghe projected the image of a simpleminded haberdasher so that his foes wrongly underestimated him. "I tend to see elements of Truman in all candidates to varying degrees, but whoever wins the nomination is going to have to win against a better-funded, lying, entrenched enemy." With luck, on Nov. 3, 2004, a winning Democrat will be happily holding aloft an emblematically inaccurate "Bush Defeats Aubrey" headline.
In a Nov. 21 editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Glenda Holste discussed Bush's recent state visit to Britain, where, she said, he and Prime Minister Tony Blair exhorted "the Jack Aubreys and citizens for whom they fight to perform for country, for home, and for the prize of wiping terrorism off the globe." She worries that, under political pressure, Bush and company might not have the stomach to finish what they've started. "One does not have to agree that the modern policy vision of imperialism is sound," she wrote. "Many of us do not. But to embark on such a voyage and weasel around the consequences should be unthinkable. Courage, as the officers and crew of the fictional HMS Surprise show moviegoers, flows from resolve and an honest appraisal of the cost." Bush might not be Jack Aubrey, but he better learn from him.
So, too, the Democrats: Beating Bush will not be easy or cheap. Idealism won't be enough. It certainly will require an honest appraisal of the costsand it will cost plenty (and I'm not just talking about money).
WITH A CONTRARIAN VIEW comes Christopher Hitchens, the cranky, lefty-turned-righty political columnist. His Nov. 14 column in Slate reminded us that Stephen Maturin, so central to the book series and so marginalized in the film, is really a better model for our times. He's intelligent, instinctively democratic, and principled. He's also an espionage agent, skilled in covert tactics. What's required, Hitchens insisted, are "Stephen Maturins with their skepticism and cynicism and their determined enmity to tyranny, and not just Jack Aubreys who will discharge blasts of cannon at whoever is nominated by His Majesty as the enemy." It's an excellent point. Though a crew of Maturins couldn't run a ship, just one can provide intellectual backbone for a moral and sometimes dirty mission.
As I mentioned in my previous column, during Clinton's re-election campaign, someone printed "Aubrey/Maturin '96" bumper stickers (one is still affixed to my recycling bin). I sent one to Patrick O'Brian, who was thoroughly delighted by it. What I did not mention was that an alternate was also available: "Maturin/Aubrey." In truth, the Democratic nominee and his running mate would do well to have the traits of both. I would still put Jack Aubrey at the top of the ticket, but it's the Stephen Maturins who keep charismatic go-getters on taskand watch their back.