Rick Altergott
Swordfish
dir. Dominic Sena
Now playing at various theaters.

Manic
dir. Jordan Melamed
This has already screened at SIFF; will be released later this year.

The greatness of great actors can usually be explained with a few direct nouns. For example, Sidney Poitier was a great actor because of his confidence. That is all we need to say: He exuded total confidence. Don Cheadle's greatness, on the other hand, offers no simple path to its essence. Every time we see him in a movie (Traffic, The Family Man, Rosewood) his greatness is apparent, but the moment we attempt to articulate it we enter a bewitching maze.

The first problem with defining Don Cheadle's greatness is that he doesn't so much act as produce a soul. He is a soul-crafter more than an actor. An actor offers us a character; Don Cheadle always offers us a soul. But this ability isn't the sum total of Cheadle's roles, in the way that confidence is the sum total of Poitier's roles, or stupidity is the sum total of Cuba Gooding Jr.'s roles. To say that Cheadle produces a soul is the start of one's search toward his greatness, whereas to say Poitier is all confidence is to immediately arrive at the truth of his greatness. But here is the tricky part: The soul that Don Cheadle produces is always made from the same mold--it is the soul of Cheadle. This is not to say that Don Cheadle always plays the same role. He plays many different roles developed by various social circumstances, but always derived from the same great substance: the soul of Cheadle.

This requires a clearer explanation. Imagine if Don's mother gave birth to a decatuplet of Cheadles and then died. His father also happened to die the day before in some inexplicable accident. In a word, the 10 Cheadle babies enter the world as orphans. No single couple wants to adopt all these little Cheadles, and so the social workers send them to separate homes around America. As a consequence, one Don grows up to be an FBI agent (Traffic); another a thug (Devil in a Blue Dress) or convict (Out of Sight); another a second-rate porn actor (Boogie Nights); and yet another grows up to be an astronaut (Mission to Mars). Each Don is very different, but formed from the same great soul.

But aren't Poitier's varying characters made of the same confidence? Or Gooding's characters of the same stupidity? This is true, they are. The difference is that Cheadle's art is determined not by an attribute but an actual thing, not a disposition but a visible object, and that object is the soul. So, Cheadle can be confident, as in Devil in a Blue Dress, or stupid, as in Boogie Nights, but these are personalities imprinted on one hard truth, that being his soul. And what a clear soul it is! In extreme and murky situations, we always see the souls of his characters.

Take for instance these two new movies that feature Don Cheadle: Swordfish and Manic. In Dominic Sena's Swordfish, which is a delightful mess of a blockbuster, John Travolta plays a white Negro whom America employs to maintain global hegemony. Travolta steals money and uses it to kill dangerous international terrorists. Don Cheadle plays an FBI agent who is trying to arrest this evil but necessary American and restore some kind of order in the judicial and political systems. But he is powerless in the face of Travolta's (and the film's) inhuman dimensions. Indeed, Cheadle is dwarfed by the big explosions, bombastic black/pimp Travolta, and hypervoluptuous sister/whore Halle Berry.

In Jordan Melamed's Manic, which is also a great film but for completely different reasons (the film is thoughtful, and emotional), we have a very human and even microscopic movie, which turns Don Cheadle into a giant. Here, he plays a psychologist who works with dysfunctional white kids in an L.A. mental hospital, and his presence in this low-budget film is so large that the digital camera can hardly capture the whole of Cheadle, but shows unsettled parts and pieces of the giant. Despite the extreme differences in scale, Don Cheadle still manages to communicate the souls of both characters.

If, as Ralph Ellison once pointed out, every time Louis Armstrong played the trumpet he produced a beam of sound, then every time Cheadle performs, he produces a beam of the soul. We have yet to see a movie in which Cheadle fails to project this beam of mesmerizing light, and we still have a long way to go before we can offer an adequate explanation as to why this beaming soul is great.