Master and Conundrum

Can a Russell Crowe movie help the Democrats in 2004?

LAST WEEKEND SAW the opening of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe. It's an action film set during the Napoleonic wars and features a humble British ship and her plucky crew as they battle a state-of-the-art French warship.

Neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer praised the movie this week as a perfect propaganda film for the war on terror. In addition to the joy of seeing the French get their keisters kicked, he writes that the movie is "deeply satisfying" as a perfect distillation of the "essence of warfare." It reminds him of the way the media covered those glorious days as we rolled into Baghdadbefore everything got so inconveniently messy.

The main character in Master and Commander is Capt. Jack Aubrey, played by Crowe, a superior seaman, valiant warrior, and charmed officer known to his men as "Lucky Jack." There's little doubt that if he were alive today, he'd be fighting in Iraq and acquitting himself ably. If he were American, he would be a Republican. He is a man of his class (upper, of course) and tradition, and he performs well not only because he believes in king and country, but because he loves his work. War is also highly profitable. Aubrey earns much of his fortuneand his crew most of their pocket changeby sharing in the prize money that comes from taking enemy ships. Their conduct in battle is exemplary, but often motivated by financial self-interest. Imagine that.

It is common to look for meaning in war movies released during wartimeRichard Nixon, for example, loved 1970's Patton, which offered relief from the chanting antiwar protesters outside. But as we enter the real presidential campaign season, and before the film is completely co-opted by the Bush war machine, Democrats ought to take a look at Master and Commander's Jack Aubrey. This might help them solve the puzzle of who will have the best chance of beating Bush in 2004.

THE FILM IS BASED ON a popular series of historical novels by the late British writer Patrick O'Brian, who, before the neocons get too excited, lived happily in France. At the center of the books are the rich, complicated lives of the captain and his crew. What makes O'Brian's stories so special is not just their drama, nor their nautical and historical detail, but the sensitively drawn relationship between the two main charactersAubrey and ship's surgeon and naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin.

Hollywood has thrown most of this overboard, however. The film's central figure is Aubrey alone, and best pal Maturin is demoted to the role of a nag who pricks the captain's conscience at inconvenient moments. In this, he's a bit like the Democrats. But though Aubrey is a Tory superhero fighting the French, let's also be clear about another thing. I've read Patrick O'Brian. I knew Patrick O'Brian. And George W. Bush is no Jack Aubrey. You never would have found Aubrey strutting around on deck crowing, "Mission accomplished!"

In some ways, Aubrey has more in common with Bill Clinton. Both are golden boys with large appetites (and a tendency toward chubbiness); both can "feel your pain" and run a man through with a cutlass. And Jack, like Bill, has an eye for the ladies, though the movie barely hints at this.

O'Brian's novels were popular across the political spectrum. But they were especially warmly received in coastal cities crammed with educated readers. During a rare book tour in 1995, O'Brian talked to packed houses in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. Interesting that these are mostly Democratic strongholds. The cult was so strong, it spawned a whimsical political bumper sticker: "Aubrey and Maturin in '96."

WHO WILL BE the Democrats' Aubrey in '04? It must be someone with his most enduring qualities. To wit:

He is an optimist. Aubrey is unafraid of long odds and is always confident of victory. He runs a positive campaign and offers his crew a clear vision of how things will turn out.

He's a man of action. In battle, Aubrey's motto, from Lord Nelson, is "Go right at 'em." If need be, he'll run to live and fight another day. But Aubrey also believes you won't win by being on the defensive.

He's cunning. And smart. In the film, Aubrey and his men overcome overwhelming odds by tricking the enemy. Stealth, trickery, inventiveness are all part of the arsenal. If you're outgunned, change the terms of battle and turn the tables on the enemy.

He makes tough decisions. In the movie, Aubrey must literally cut loose a man to save his ship. Aubrey doesn't need a sign on his desk to tell you where the buck stops.

He's compassionate. Aubrey doles out the occasional flogging, but he understands his people and is deeply loyal. He knows their needs, their desires, their waysand he attends to them, without pandering.

He's charismatic. Democrats tend to think rightness is more important than popularitya fatal flaw. Natural confidence, smarts, sex appeal, and luck are essential parts of power (another Jack, Kennedy, had these). The Democratic candidate will need at least three of these four qualities to win.

It'll be tough to find someone who measures up. But as Capt. Aubrey might say, "There's not a moment to lose." And there isn't.

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