Monday, May 21, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.10: Ridley Scott's White Squall

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 65 (B)

How do you rebound from making the worst film of your career? After the failure of 1492, Ridley Scott didn’t make another film for four years. It didn’t help that a project he had invested a lot of time in (Hot Zone, a film about the Ebola virus) fell through. Scott eventually moved on to the modest maritime adventure/coming-of-age film White Squall. The film was another financial failure, and an inauspicious debut for Scott’s production company Scott Free Productions (founded with brother Tony Scott). But just because White Squall is a minor film from the director doesn’t make it a bad film by any means.

The film is based on the true story of the final journey of the ship Albatross from 1960 to 1961. Christopher “Skipper” Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) leads a school sailing trip that fourteen gifted students take in lieu of their senior year of high school. The ship’s crew includes Sheldon’s wife (and ship doctor) Dr. Alice Sheldon (Caroline Goodall, English teacher McCrea (John Savage), and ship cook Girard Pascal (Julio Oscar Mechoso). The boys include: walking apple pie Chuck Gieg (Scott Wolf; Frank Beaumont (Jeremy Sisto), a rich boy with a demanding father; Gil Martin (Ryan Philippe), a troubled introvert; and Dean Preston (Eric Michael Cole), a troublemaker who cheated on a test to get on the boat. The disparate personalities bond after the tough “Skipper” teaches them how to work together as a crew on the sea. But when a white squall hits their ship near the end of the voyage, their newfound set of skills isn’t enough.

White Squall is a fairly standard coming-of-age film, storywise. Todd Robinson’s problematic script could more or less be called “Dead Poet’s Society on the sea”. The films share the same formula- eccentric adult teaches kids, introverted boy learns to open up, everyone learns life lessons, a tragedy casts doubt on the adult’s leadership, and the kids stand up for him. The films share similar weaknesses- it’s easy to tell what’s going to happen at pretty much every turn, the boys’ storylines are often ridiculously melodramatic (“I can’t read!”), most of the boys blend together (Ryan Philippe is surprisingly strong as the introvert, however), attempts at relevancy fall flat (I’m not going into the Bay of Pigs tie-in), and the hogwash final sequence is telegraphed from a mile away.

White Squall works better than Dead Poet’s Society (one of Peter Weir’s weakest films) in part because the mentor character is more believable. Robin Williams’s performance in Dead Poet’s Society is a cross between bad standup and twinkly-eyed sentimentality that he brings to a number of his roles, and it doesn’t help that the character is a terrible teacher whose oversimplified “carpe diem” philosophy doesn’t add up to anything. White Squall, on the other hand, casts Jeff Bridges (one of the finest actors alive) as the mentor and doesn’t set him up as a martyr. He’s a tough son of a bitch whose disciplinary streak doesn’t always leave room for compassion. He’s a flawed character, but Bridges invests him with a calm authority that makes it easy to see why the boys would follow him.

White Squall also works better than Dead Poet’s Society because of its unconventional setting. Scott might be making a coming-of-age film (and the story’s structure follows that rigid formula), but he acts like he’s making a rip-roaring naval adventure movie. There’s plenty of highfalutin references to William Shakespeare and Homer, but Scott’s bigger influences are that of the old seaside adventure stories. Scott’s work here is reminiscent of the old adventure films from Howard Hawks or John Huston (or, indeed, the paycheck films of his longstanding influence Orson Welles).

Scott makes great use of the limited space of the ship by focusing on the minutiae of running the ship. For those who complained that 1492 needed more time on the boat (myself), here’s an adventure on a creaking ship that feels far more real and lived in. Scott being Scott, he shoots the scene with an abundance of shafts of light, heavy haze and smoke for atmospherics, and deliberate use of shadows for the moodier scenes in the film (Gil’s confession about his brother’s death). When the characters leave the ship for a trek through the cities or the mountains of the world, Scott captures the gorgeous scenery in all of its splendor and glory.

White Squall isn’t a terribly memorable movie, however, until it reaches the titular third-act disaster. Scott’s atmospheric touches are put on full swing in an intense set-piece that’s undoubtedly the real reason Scott agreed to make the film. Scott throws everything he’s got at the camera: heavy mist and haze, storm effects, a sinking ship, and the struggle to keep everyone alive. Scott’s longstanding interest in mortality kicks in and all of the sudden Scott pushes everything to its physical and psychological limit. The ship twists and turns, characters are thrown around in the storm, and several people die. But while the storm effects are impressive, Scott gets the most mileage out of one of his most claustrophobic moments outside of Alien (Scott himself is claustrophobic): one of the major characters is stuck inside the ship as it fills up with water. He’s running out of space and out of air, and no one remembers that he’s still inside. The whole sequence feels like it’s part of an adventurous masterpiece. It’s instead the best part of a minor work.

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