Friday February 2, 1996
It is intimated near the end of Ridley Scott's "White Squall" that the title storm condition may be a myth, and if we weren't told otherwise, we might regard the entire adventure in the same light. Not because the events and characters are so improbable, but because they have been so churned up in the imaginations of Scott and writer Todd Robinson that little about them rings true.
The essential story, of course, is true. In 1960, 13 preppies set sail with Ocean Academy captain-schoolmaster Christopher Sheldon aboard a twin-masted brigantine named the Albatross on a voyage from the Caribbean to the South Pacific and back. It was an eight-month, 12,000-mile trip highlighted by an encounter with a Cuban gunboat on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and ended by a sudden storm that sank the vessel, drowning four boys and two crew members, including Sheldon's wife.
During the subsequent Coast Guard hearing, to determine the fate of Sheldon's U.S. Master Seaman's Certificate, the captain heard himself described as both a modern-day Bligh whose tyranny nearly inspired a mutiny and as a leader who gave the boys too much freedom on shore and not enough instruction aboard ship. The surviving students, taking seriously the Ocean Academy's Musketeer adage, "We go one, we go all," had another opinion entirely.
That the real Christopher Sheldon served as an advisor on "White Squall" provides a clue to the view the film holds of him, and Jeff Bridges' comment that he took his inspiration from Mike Nelson, the character his father played on the TV series "Sea Hunt," provides another. Whatever the truth of Sheldon's behavior aboard the Albatross, it's hidden beneath the dramatic veneer of a story that is more interested in being compared to Peter Weir's movie "Dead Poets Society" than Longfellow's poem "The Wreck of the Hesperus." It's a matter of grosses.
Few directors have a better eye for dramatic composition than Scott, and the squall sequence, with a white wall of wind battering the Albatross and its crew, is both terrifying and weirdly exhilarating. But it is a long time in coming, an hour and a half into the movie to be exact, and by then, we have been visited by so much tedious detail and the excitement is long overdue.
That interminable first act is spent mostly with the boys, establishing their conflicting personalities and going through the gyrations of all their sunbaked male bonding. Mostly, the central figures are more types than characters: the bully whose quick temper hides a host of insecurities, the sensitive kid trying to overcome his fear of heights, the brow-beaten son of a wealthy tyrant trying to find his own identity, the experienced sailor who may or may not panic in the crunch.
Scott Wolf, the hot young star of TV's "Party of Five," is by far the main attraction, playing the story's narrator, Chuck Gieg, a high school senior who bucks family pressure to cram for Ivy League entrance exams and follows his dream to the sea. Wolf bears a remarkable resemblance to Tom Cruise and shares many of his acting mannerisms as well. But his is a compelling presence in this company, and the young audience for whom the film seems intended will appreciate the strength he brings.
As for Bridges, the inner fires that make most of his characters mysterious and charismatic are out. We don't have to wonder what's beneath his rigid attitude; it's the thinnest possible crust, beneath which beats the heart of a caring surrogate father, loving husband and dedicated professional. Mike Nelson maybe, not much more.
Scott spends a minimum of time with the adults aboard the Albatross, anyway. A couple of scenes here and there for Sheldon's wife (Caroline Goodall) to establish that she is the ship's doctor and able first mate; an occasional pass by McCrea (John Savage), the Shakespeare-mugging English teacher; and a look at Girard (Julio Mechoso), the Cuban cook whose presence adds notable tension to the confrontation with the Cuban gunboat crew.
The story, however, is preoccupied with the boys, not so much with the learning experience that brought them together--for all the testing they go through, we never see them being taught much--but with their fights and their shore adventures. It gives the film a sense of narrative aimlessness, as if the Cubans' shattering of the ship's compass scattered the script at the same time. The occasional radio reports of orbiting astronauts and the Cuban missile crisis attempt to provide a thread, a parallel between the Albatross' impending tragedy and the political drama, but it does little to alleviate the boredom.
The 20 or so minutes we spend with the Albatross in the squall is high adventure, to be sure. Everything else is ballast.
White Squall, 1996. PG-13, for some sexuality and a traumatic shipwreck. A Largo Entertainment/Scott Free production, released by Buena Vista for Hollywood Pictures. Director Ridley Scott. Producers Mimi Polk Gitlin, Rocky Lang. Screenplay Todd Robinson. Cinematography Hugh Johnson. Editor Gerry Hambling. Costumes Judianna Makovsky. Production design Peter J. Hampton, Leslie Tomkins. Art direction Joseph P. Lucky. Set decoration Rand Sagers. Music Jeff Rona. Running time: 2 hours, seven minutes. Jeff Bridges as Christopher Sheldon. Scott Wolf as Chuck Gieg. Caroline Goodall as Dr. Alice Sheldon. John Savage as McCrea. Jeremy Sisto as Frank Beaumont.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times