Cruising 

All about honor in The Last Samurai; lying liar in Shattered Glass.

In The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell, there is a funny chapter called "Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous." Vowell seeks to reconcile Mr. Cruise's appeal with a quality that makes her (and she speaks for many, I think) uneasy. She comments about the impossibilities of his features, stature, general cocksure-ity, and ravenous acting approach, coming closest to a thesis statement with the following: "Where Tom Cruise sticks his privates has been the subject of rumors and lawsuits, but I never gave Cruise's sexuality much truck one way or the other. Because, watching his movies over the last few weeks, I am constantly surprised when Cruise is in the same room with another person, much less the same bed. He strikes me as utterly, quintessentially, fundamentally alone."

This makes sense. The contrast of what makes him a star (riches, fame, some degree of talent, and a whole lot of charm) with what should prevent his success (he's a somewhat awkwardly handsome 5'6" with a big schnoz) combined with the ferocity with which Cruise applies himself makes us nervous. And this makes him the perfect outsider.

I address the Tom Cruise phenomenon only to assist my articulation of the success and failures of his latest film, The Last Samurai.

The cocky Cruise character is Nathan Algren, a decorated war hero (from the war against the American Indians) now drunkenly relegated to showing off new gun technology at expositions. Algren is offered handsome compensation to leave the States and help bring Japan into the modern age of guns and to suppress a revolt of nontechnological samurai making trouble in the hinterlands. During a raid that is botched by unready troops, Algren is captured but not before managing to cleverly kill off one of the most accomplished samurai. The samurai lord, Katsumoto, is impressed with Algren's magnificent fighting spirit and resourcefulness and decides to nurse him back to health so that he might learn more about his enemy.

The premise revealed, I will skip the rest of the plot, saying only that it is inevitable that Algren comes to respect and then love the ways of his captors and becomes himself an accomplished warrior in their disciplined traditions. He soon allies himself against his former compatriots and must learn what true honor is and how both life and death can help one reach his destiny. Essentially, and I do not say this casually, this film is Dances with Wolves set among the Japanese "other" rather than the American "other."

I didn't like this movie, then I liked it, then I didn't like it again -- all in the span of its two-plus hours. It starts like a Cruise movie, stopped being one for a fascinating hour or so, and then returned to its Hollywood roots. When we first see Cruise, he is doing his trademark Cruise acting: slightly over the top in his anger, drunkenness, and overall swagger. However, once Algren is abducted, we get to see some really nice stuff. Thank goodness for the strength and charisma of his co-star, Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto. Watanabe is as focused and economical an actor I have seen in some time and manages to communicate more rage, love, or concern in a steely glance than Cruise can with a monologue's worth of bluster.

It's great watching Algren and Katsumoto (and, incidentally, Cruise and Watanabe) learn from each other and settle each other down. Cruise is at his best here when he's listening, when someone else is driving the scene. I dare say even that he's better when speaking his scant lines of Japanese than those in English because it forces him most convincingly out of his element. However, just as we come to admire Cruise's identification with samurai stillness and restraint (and what one can achieve with a "good death"), the spirit of the movie swings back across the Pacific to Hollywood again, and we have a fairly typical Cruise ending that betrays what we have come to appreciate most about The Last Samurai -- the acceptance of destiny. I won't spoil the end, but I will say that whether or not Algren survives the climactic battle (between sword-wielding samurai and newfangled howitzer repeating rifles) makes or breaks the point of Algren's spiritual conversion.

The Last Samurai is beautifully filmed, and like two of director Ed Zwick's own definitive films -- Courage Under Fire and Glory -- this one asks challenging questions about honor and country from the perspective of outsiders. I just wish that the story had stayed true to the traditions it seems to wish to extol. -- Bo List

Shattered Glass, the debut film from writer-director Billy Ray, is a tightly coiled little movie that clips along at a brisk pace. It's essentially a journalism procedural with mystery and investigative elements, and while it's hard to gauge whether audiences with no connection to the profession will be as interested in this as they tend to be in police procedurals, it has much of the same sense of plotting and revelation, the latter element effective even though most in the audience will likely already know the outcome.

That's because Shattered Glass is also a true story -- an account of one of the biggest journalism scandals in recent memory: that of supposedly brilliant young reporter Stephen Glass, who was found, in 1998, to have fabricated more than two dozen stories for the venerable Beltway publication The New Republic (the self-styled "in-flight magazine of Air Force One"), for whom he was a staff writer.

Shattered Glass suggests that Glass' success came in part from the way his colorful stories added liveliness and humor to the relatively wonkish magazine, presenting his colleagues as largely dazzled by his quirky story pitches in staff meetings.

The film takes us inside what we come to find is merely Glass' imagination, envisioning scenes from such fanciful stories as "Spring Breakdown," in which Glass purports to go undercover at a Young Republicans' convention and witnesses alcohol- and drug-fueled bacchanalias at the convention hotel, and "Hacker Heaven" (the story for which Glass is ultimately exposed), in which Glass reports on a teen computer hacker who signs a high-dollar contract with a software firm whose security he's infiltrated.

These are giddily entertaining sequences, conveying all the "color" and "nuance" that made Glass' editors grin appreciatively and some colleagues jealous. Shattered Glass could have easily taken a cue from these scenes and presented its protagonist as a nervy spinner of tall tales who takes traditional journalism for a ride, as one imagines that Glass' own recent roman a clef novel The Fabulist might.

But much to its credit, Shattered Glass doesn't do this, instead choosing to present Glass as a monster of sorts --a characterization that Ray and lead Hayden Christensen (soaring with the opportunity to not play Annakin Skywalker) pull off with considerable aplomb.

Christensen plays Glass --a mere 24 years old at the time the film is set -- as an obsequious charmer, adept at ingratiating himself with superiors and manipulating his peers with a finely modulated combination of ass-kissing and showing off. It shows the way he draws the favor of co-workers with calculated shows of kindness and interest and the way he softens the arrogance of his showman-like story pitches with an aw-shucks "this idea sucks" disingenuousness.

Ray and Christensen allow the audience to see what a creepy figure Glass is but also to understand how his co-workers could have been roped in by his act -- how any of us under the same circumstances could have been similarly taken advantage of.

Among these co-workers is the late Michael Kelly (who died this year while covering Operation Desert Storm), Glass' initial editor at The New Republic. As played by Hank Azaria, Kelly is portrayed as a tough, honorable, father-figure editor whose fascination with Glass leads him to miss clues to his charge's duplicity. And he's not the only one. Glass' immediate editor and possible romantic interest, Caitlin Avey (Chloâ Sevigny), is portrayed as an enabler who defends Glass until the truth is almost literally shoved in her face.

The one staffer who is portrayed as a skeptic early on is Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), a colleague who takes over editorship from Kelly and (with some help from an online reporter investigating the claims in "Hacker Heaven") uncovers Glass' inventions. Played as one long, depressed slow burn by Sarsgaard, Lane's a critical onlooker who feels more like a stand-in for the director than the audience.

Shattered Glass' connection to the Jayson Blair/New York Times scandal is obvious and unavoidable, but the film also serves as an all-purpose allegory for recent American corruption and deceit, one so mutable that one could see the film as a condemnation of either (or, of course, both) of the past two presidential administrations, not to mention the corporate scandals of the past few years. It gives a presentation of American ambition and deceit that isn't just a problem for one reporter, one publication, or one profession. It is a strain of sickness that an entire society must guard against. -- Chris Herrington

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