THE ADAGE that every generation gets the president it deserves applies equally well to popular culture. We get the TV shows, pop songs, and cinema we deserve. Movie stars, too. The greatest generation got Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, and Cary Grant. (Bogart and Tracy served stints in the Navy.) For their sins, the Boomers were given Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, and Jack Nicholson. (As a young actor with three movie credits to his name, Beatty was invited to Washington by President Kennedy to "soak up the atmosphere." Beatty's response: "Let him come here to Los Angeles and soak up my atmosphere.")
My generation has Tom Cruise.
There are a number of valid criticisms of Cruise. He is a Scientologist. His manner and looks are a little alarming. As Cintra Wilson worried after the 2002 Oscars: ". . . he is an utterly terrifying Superior Life Form, with the power to melt heads and braid spines. His eyes are as hard, shiny, and brutally penetrating as diamond drill-bits. The new braces on his teeth suggest that he is erasing all that remained of his tiny imperfections, and he is now metamorphosing into Ultra Super Perfection Man 3000. I fear his intense, mind-beating politeness, his titanium imperviousness to human weakness, his barking power-laugh." Perhaps Godzilla-like terror is too strong a reaction, but there's no doubt that he is a weirdly perfect and perfectly controlling freak.
Though say what you will about Cruise, one fact remains: He's no Steve Guttenberg. Or Mark Harmon. Or Brad Pitt. Or any other of the disposable, pretty-boy movie stars who have crowded the multiplex on and off for 20 years. Tom Cruise is the leading man of his day and, all things considered, he's probably better than this generation of moviegoers deserves. (Historical footnote: In 2035, when the Thalberg awards are handed out and all is said and done, George Clooney will be considered the star of his generation, but that's then and this is now.)
If you tour Cruise's filmography, you'll see an actor doing competent work in movies that are better than they have to be. For every "Days of Thunder" there's a "Color of Money"; for every "Mission Impossible: 2" there's a "Minority Report." His popcorn films are often mediocre ("The Firm") and even his prestige movies can be terrible ("Born on the Fourth of July," "Far and Away," "Eyes Wide Shut"). But if you do the numbers, he bats about .600 and hits to all fields with power ("Rain Man," "Top Gun," "Magnolia"). And above all else, with Tom Cruise you always get the sense that at least he's trying.
Which is perhaps the best way to explain his latest film. "The Last Samurai" is a modest accomplishment, filled with flaws and missed opportunities. It isn't a great movie, but at least it aspires--it tries, hard--honestly and unpretentiously to be one.
"THE LAST SAMURAI" begins with Cruise as Nathan Algren, a decorated Civil War officer who once served under George Custer. With the war over, his ennui and alcoholism have reduced him to shilling for the Winchester rifle company. Algren is approached by a former commander and convinced to take a job as a consultant in Japan, charged with modernizing and training the Imperial army.
Japan, now open to the West after centuries of isolation, is going through a painful period of industrialization, with a mild revolt being led by a man named Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe). A samurai, and former tutor of the emperor, Katsumoto leads a small army of the old guard who are intent on resisting modernity and, as a sign of fidelity to the old ways, refuse to employ guns and cannon.
When the Imperial army and Katsumoto's forces first clash, Algren is taken prisoner. He is brought back to Katsumoto's village in the mountains where winter seals them off from the rest of the country and the two men develop a formal and intriguing relationship.
If this sounds like "Lost in Translation" meets "Dances with Wolves," fair enough. Yet "The Last Samurai" soft-pedals its cross-cultural disconnect by having the language barrier evaporate and Algren's sudden philosophical depth and spiritual conversion do not feel entirely authentic.
What does work--and well--are the interactions between Algren and Katsumoto, two men who are united by a belief in martial nobility. "The Last Samurai" suffers for not giving us more of their interactions.
As always, Cruise works hard and his Algren gets the job done. He is, however, nearly blown off the screen on several occasions by Watanabe's Katsumoto. Watanabe is a commanding presence with charisma to burn.
ULTIMATELY, the major problems with "The Last Samurai" fall on director and writer Edward Zwick and his small team of cowriters.
Zwick's direction is steady, if uninspired, save for his penchant for slow-motion flashbacks. On this count, he is a repeat offender. More serious is the movie's failure to adequately explain the intricacies of Japan's Imperial system. The emperor was considered infallible, and as a result he did not rule on any proximate matters of state--since decisions made on near-term matters might be proven incorrect by events. This meant that on important issues--such as those of war, or internal rebellion--decisions were made by the generals. For instance, at the 1941 meeting where Japan's military and government officials decided to go to war with America, Emperor Hirohito attempted to intervene only by saying:
All men are brothers, like the seas throughout the world;
So why do winds and waves clash so fiercely everywhere?
This bizarre hierarchy contributed to Japan's entry into World War II and, in the context of "The Last Samurai," allows a handful of Japanese industrialists to fight an undeclared civil war against Katsumoto and the samurai. Both sides claim to be fighting for, not against the emperor--and the hierarchy does not permit the emperor to choose sides. It's an interesting dynamic--a sort of constitutional Mexican standoff--but while Zwick uses it as his dramatic engine, he never opens the hood to examine it in sufficient detail.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE, "The Last Samurai" sits in a tier beneath recent historically-themed successes, such as "Master and Commander." But at the same time, it is better--much, much better--than the rest of what constitutes Oscar bait this holiday season. To appreciate the small pleasures of "The Last Samurai" and Tom Cruise, one need only sit through soon-to-be Best Picture nominee "Cold Mountain." More on that next week.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.