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Is 'Master and Commander' the Greatest Dad Movie Ever?

By Dustin Rowles | Film | July 26, 2022 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | July 26, 2022 |


In 2003, when Russell Crowe’s Master and Commander was originally released, I was unmarried and childless, and a movie about a boat sounded like the last movie I could possibly be interested in. I didn’t even like the Pirates of the Carribean movies for God’s sake — not even the first one. Unless the movie is about people being left to the sharks by the boat, I didn’t care.

I didn’t watch Master and Commander in 2003 or by 2013, but over the years, I’ve heard a number of people rave about this film and my hostility toward it began to soften. While I never thought I would like a movie about a boat, I also never thought I’d like a film about race car driving and my childless, single self would mock me relentlessly for watching four seasons of Yellowstone. What the hell happened to me, and why do I suddenly care about historically based astronaut movies and television shows?

It’s because I’m a dad now, isn’t it? Is this also why Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis continue to have successful careers? Is it because of dads? What changes in our DNA after having children that suddenly competence porn becomes our favorite genre of entertainment? Why do long shots of beautiful vistas appeal to us suddenly? I know that it was widely hailed by most people at the time, but I still think it might have been The Martian — and the minivan I drove for several years — that flipped the switch for me, that prompted my slow descent into Dadness. Remember when Wilco was hip and cool? And now they’re included along with John Mellencamp in the soundtrack for The Bear, and it’s part of why I find that show so goddamn appealing. John Mellencamp! And Wilco! What has happened to me?

Given the devolution of my cultural tastes, when someone mentioned Master and Commander a few days ago, I thought, “Hm. Would I like that now?” The idea of a boat movie no longer offends me — I actually found myself wanting to watch this movie. You know what? I liked it. A lot. Is this like when you start tucking polo shirts into your shorts — still not there yet — or is this more akin to actual growth, like learning to like crème brûlée or swirling your wine around the glass before chugging it?

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Master and Commander is about Lucky Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), the Captain of the HMS Surprise, and it’s based on a series of novels by Patrick O’Brian. It’s a two-hour-and-15-minute movie, but the plot is surprisingly simple: Aubrey’s ship is ambushed by the private French ship, the Acheron, sustaining heavy damage. Surprise manages to evade further damage by hiding in the fog. Lucky Jack spends the rest of the film determined to track down the faster, bigger ship with twice as many men and take it out before it destroys more British whaling ships.

And so he pursues the Archeron across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and toward the Galápagos Islands, where the ship’s surgeon and scientist, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) — who also happens to be Lucky Jack’s closet friend — becomes fascinated with the islands’ unique flora and fauna. But that has to wait, damnit, because Jack is on a prideful mission to battle a ship he has no business battling, which could cost his crew their lives!

It’s a fun adventure, and there are a few tastes of history mixed in, as well as a lot of boating jargon that sounds cool but makes no sense to me — not unlike Peter Weir’s shaky, Greengrassian action sequences, where you can barely tell who is getting their asses kicked. But no matter! Lucky Jack swallows his pride, listens to his men, and succeeds in the right way before he and Maturin play the cello and violin together.

Still, I don’t regret not watching Master and Commander in 2003. I wouldn’t have liked it then because my Dad brain had not fully formed. But now I can appreciate it for what it is. It’s a blast, and the “lesser of two weevils” joke may be the greatest Dad joke ever told on film. Now I feel like I might need to go back 20 years and reevaluate everything. Is 2003’s Kevin Costner flick Open Range actually good? Does this mean I have to watch Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, too? Where does it end? It ends with Eastwood, doesn’t it? FML.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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