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A Whale of a Tale
by Sarah L. Polson

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Russell Crowe has done his fair share of interesting movies in the past few years. From a beefy, meathead cop to a hunky gladiator, to an asocial mathematician to a sea captain, he's managed to vary his work quite a bit.

The sea captain role in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was probably the closest I've seen a role get to the real Russell Crowe. For a long time, he was seen as a beefy, arrogant, drunken lout who just lucked into a great movie career. So we'll pretend I rented this movie to learn more about Russell Crowe rather than just because I was hoping for some more hunky gladiator type scenes.

What surprised me about Master and Commander was how much this was a "Moby Dick" type tale. The French ship, the Acheron, might as well be the great white whale considering the obsession behind Captain Jack's pursuit of it.

What makes the stories and the obsession so similar is how the director chose to tell the story. Not once, until the big battle scene do we ever see the crew of the Acheron. The focus of the story is always on Captain Jack and his crew on the HMS Surprise.

Normally in a big battle story like this, you see both sides. They will show you people from both sides of the war, so you get emotionally invested in the battles. You might feel connected to a certain character on both sides and worry how it will turn out for them. Or you develop an understanding of why both sides are fighting so you pick the side you feel is right.

In this case, we see one side, just like in Moby Dick where we can't really get to know the whale's side of the story. And you never real learn anything about why they're fighting in the first place, just that the HMS Surprise is under orders to capture the Acheron and stop it's raiding of British ships. What we do see is how it becomes an obsession for Captain Jack. Despite bad luck, bad weather, and being outgunned, he's determined to catch the other ship.

The story becomes about his obsession rather than the battle or war itself. Keeping the scenes all about the HMS Surprise and never allowing the audience to meet the Acheron crew and connect with them, helps keep the focus on the obsession and even magnify it.

If they had shown us scenes from the Acheron and let us get to know why the French were so determined too, it would lessen the effect of the obsession. We'd connect more with Captain Jack and his reasons for wanting to complete his mission at all costs rather than seeing it for the obsession that it has become for him.

Captain Jack becomes like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, making the hunt his own personal vendetta.

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Smoke and Mirrors
Every other Wednesday

Movie magic isn't just about special affects. Sarah L. Polson shows you the other tricks and techniques used to manipulate movie goers.

Other Columns
Other columns by Sarah L. Polson:

Violence with a Purpose

Slo-mo, The Weapon of Choice

In Living Color

I'm Ready for My Close-up

Put Your Best Face Forward

All Columns

Sarah L. Polson
As a journalist from the midwest, Sarah L. Polson has a few years under her belt writing in the newspaper world. Having worked mainly in news writing, deviating from "just the facts" is a new experience for her.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Sarah L. Polson by clicking here.

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