Two complex men of honor

James Caan takes on the Navy and a desert prison in 'Glimpse' and 'Red Rock'

Two movies Sunday take up the issue of honor among men and delve into the masculine genres with intelligence.

Interestingly, both star James Caan in genuine, understated performances.

"A Glimpse of Hell" (FX Channel, March 18, 8-10 p.m.) is a naval film based on a true story, and "Warden of Red Rock" (Showtime, March 18, 8-9:30 p.m.), is a turn-of-the-century western with a twist on the old romance formula.

In both these films, "honor" includes a code of ethics that is noble in intent and unselfish in practice. These honorable men will hold to the truth - even when the truth is difficult, painful, or inconvenient.

A Glimpse of Hell takes place in 1989 and centers on the explosion of Turret 2 on the battleship USS Iowa during a training exercise. The deadly accident, which takes place hundreds of miles northeast of Puerto Rico, costs the lives of 47 crewmen. Gunnersmate Clayton Hartwig, who died in the explosion, was accused of the crime and his family disgraced. His married buddy, Gunnersmate Kendall Truitt, was wrongly labeled homosexual and hounded from his post. The Navy called it homosexual sabotage.

The movie attempts to set the record straight. The battleship had been commissioned in 1942, was outdated, badly worn down, and poorly supplied. The explosion was a technical nightmare, according to the filmmakers' research, not the act of a saboteur - so the Navy "coverup" was sheer political maneuvering to keep the public eye off the brass's culpability for not keeping the ship in good repair.

Even before the explosion, Capt. Fred Moosally (Caan) demands strict loyalty from his men. When Lt. Dan Meyer (Robert Sean Leonard) signs on under his command, the young man is ready to play by the rules. He does not understand, however, that loyalty to the captain might include an agreement to cover up the nasty condition of the ship.

The storytelling is sometimes jargon-heavy, but what does come across is the struggle that two men wage between their code of loyalty and their individual consciences.

The captain is a man used to the vicissitudes of politics. He is a realist, a company man, a "lifer." He doesn't know his men well.

But he is also a complex man, an honorable man, and there is a line he cannot cross - a bottom line of his integrity - and no matter what it may cost him, he will not cross it. His sense of honor is bound up in love for the best principles of the Navy and the best interests of his men.

Lieutenant Meyer is not a political animal, and his bar of honor is higher than his more worldly commander's. But he is powerless - he realizes that the only way his interpretation of the facts will be heard is if the captain somehow utters them. And so it is at Meyer's prompting that the captain faces the truth of his situation.

Leonard and Caan are excellent foils for each other. Leonard projects an authentic boyish charm, but he also shows a mature, perceptive strength. Caan's hardbitten, vituperative commander can be menacingly demanding. But it's those moments when he looks within himself that matter most. It's not a huge role for him, but it's a vigorous one.

Caan has a lot more to do in Warden of Red Rock. Though the film trips a little over itself, it's a poignant story about the Old West passing away, and a new, more humane sensibility replacing the more ruthless forms of rugged individualism.

Caan's Warden Findley is a good man, once an outlaw himself, who runs a formidable desert prison in Red Rock, Ariz. This good man is no sentimentalist. He radiates a sadness - an air of melancholy born of virtue surviving among the criminal element.

But when he returns the wedding ring of a recently executed murderer to the dead man's wife (Rachel Ticotin), his own imagination opens up toward the widow and her little daughter.

His sense of honor includes a growing need to do well by this desolate woman. And his good efforts for her lead to a longing for family and a life outside the prison walls.

Meanwhile, his sense of honor as the warden sends him out to pursue an old friend, an outlaw escapee (played with persuasive bluff by David Carradine), whose real agenda is disquieting.

Again, there is a line the Caan character won't cross even to help a friend. His sense of honor includes humane treatment of his prisoners, but it also includes a sense of the importance and honor of the law itself.

On the family front this week, look for the charming Wonderful World of Disney: Bailey's Mistake (ABC, 7-9 p.m.) starring Linda Hamilton and Joan Plowright. Influenced by "magic realism," it celebrates family affection as a source of strength and purpose.

Ms. Hamilton, whose theatrical background has served her well in the movies and TV, says she's fortunate to be able to go back and forth between film and television because "right now, [television] is a family-friendly choice.... Television takes only three or four weeks, and then you're home. I love the pace - it plugs you into the character faster. It's like guerrilla filmmaking."

She says some of the best parts she's reading lately are for TV. There's a courageousness you don't find in film right now unless you're doing "indie" films, she says.

"Bailey's Mistake" concerns a widow who discovers that her husband had a secret life and that he has left her a mysterious island. Here her children find long-lost relatives and special "gifts" within themselves.

Asked what drew her to the story, Hamilton says, "It was the lovely fantasy of it, the comedy. I loved the character - she is a grieving widow, a fully human woman, flawed; a not so extraordinary woman in an extraordinary situation."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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