"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, August 19, 2022

White Squall

For a filmmaker as prolific as Ridley Scott he’s bound to have a lot of hits and misses. For every Gladiator (2000), there’s a few Someone to Watch Over Me’s (1987). It is some of the fascinating yet flawed outliers in his filmography that are the most interesting. Case in point: White Squall (1996), a dramatic recreation of the doomed school sailing trip lead by Dr. Christopher B. Sheldon on the brigantine Albatross, which sank on May 2, 1961, allegedly due to a white squall, killing six people. Adapted from Charles Gieg’s book The Last Voyage of the Albatross, the film received mixed reviews and, despite its cast, featuring a bevy of young, up-and-coming actors, performed poorly at the box office.
The film follows Chuck Gieg (Scott Wolf) as it opens with the young man giving up his last year of high school to sail on the Albatross. His brother got into an Ivy League school on a scholarship and it is hinted that he doesn’t have the grades to do the same. The rest of the boys are loosely sketched and it’s up to the talented young cast to breathe life into their respective characters. You’ve got Dean Preston (Eric Michael Cole), the bully who thinks he’s cooler than everyone else; Gil Martin (Ryan Phillippe), the meek one; Frank Beaumont (Jeremy Sisto), the spoiled rich kid who doesn’t want to be there, and so on.
We meet most of these boys as they are prepared to board the Albatross for a year-long voyage at sea where they’ll learn everything they need to know about operating a boat while also keeping up with their academic studies. They are immediately greeted by McCrea (John Savage), the grizzled English teacher who quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest to them. They go below decks and are greeted by boys already there. True to Social Darwinism, a pecking order is quickly established but as they will find out, everyone answers to Captain Christopher Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) a.k.a. The Skipper who sets the ground rules when he addresses them for the first time: “The ship beneath you is not a toy and sailing’s not a game.” In this scene, Jeff Bridges tempers his innate likability and charisma by playing the Skipper as a no-nonsense disciplinarian who demands his students follow the rules. This is further reinforced in the next scene when he finds out that Gil is afraid of heights and browbeats the young man to climb up the rigging and in the process not only traumatizes him but humiliates him in front of the other boys.

Scott shows us what it takes to get a boat such as the Albatross ready for sea, how everyone works together, and how a rookie mistake almost costs Chuck his life when he hangs himself on the rigging only for the Skipper to rescue him. Early on, the boat hits a rough patch of water, a foreboding taste of what’s to come, and we see everyone act as a team to rescue one of boys who is tossed overboard. To make up for the deficiencies in the lack of character development in Todd Robinson’s screenplay, Scott includes several scenes showing the boys bonding, whether its’s Gil’s tearful recollection of how his brother died or Dean admitting he’s a poor student that doesn’t know to spell. We slowly begin to care about what happens to these boys, which is crucial later when they are put in peril with the storm.
Everything has been building to the film’s climactic set piece – a massive white squall that threatens to sink the Albatross. Scott and his crew create a harrowing scene that rivals the nautical disasters depicted in Titanic (1997) and The Perfect Storm (2000), only he did it with practical effects while those other films leaned on CGI to do most of the heavily lifting. This gives the sequence a visceral impact as it looks and sounds real. This isn’t some CGI creation but an actual thing that Scott captures in vivid detail. It’s a powerful visual reminder of the true power of nature and that we are insignificant compared to it. Every so often we are reminded of this fact.
Chuck provides the film’s voiceover narration, taken from the journal he kept during the journey. He is the wide-eyed idealist that is the calming influence on the rest of the boys and takes to the Skipper’s tough love style of leadership without losing his humanity. Scott Wolf channels a young Tom Cruise as he delivers a strong performance as the audience surrogate. After the survivors are taken back to land he breaks down in a moving scene, and then Chuck attempts to clear the Skipper’s name in the ensuing tribunal, Wolf delivering a passionate speech expertly. Chuck is the film’s social conscience as he struggles to do the right thing. He stands up for the Skipper when it looks like he will be blamed for what happened.

It is easy to see why the name actors in the cast such as Ethan Embry, Ryan Phillippe, Jeremy Sisto, and Wolf went on to notable careers. They are most successful at making their characters memorable but there is also Eric Michael Cole who plays the bully in the group. Channeling a young Matt Dillon his character is full of swagger and we eventually discover what’s behind the bravado as delivers an impressive performance that should have garnered him more high-profile roles.
White Squall, however, falters in its depiction of the Skipper. At one point his wife, Alice (Caroline Goodall), says to him, “You know, Sheldon, sometimes, not often, you act almost half human.” Therein lies the problem with this character – there’s nothing human about him, just some glowering Ahab that not even Bridges’ ample charisma can make a dent in. We get zero insight into what motivates him beyond running a tight ship. The actor tries his best but he’s not give much to work with, such as a scene where Frank inexplicably harpoons a dolphin. To punish him, the Skipper tells him to finish off the poor animal and when he refuses, does it for him. It’s an unnecessarily, ugly scene that provides no insight into either character.
This being a Ridley Scott film everything looks beautiful from the Albatross docked at dusk silhouetted against the sky to the slow-motion glamor shot of Dean diving off the highest point of the ship with the skill and grace of an Olympic athlete. We get a seemingly endless number of exquisite shots of the boat at sea with the sunlight hitting it at just the right angle.

Screenwriter Todd Robinson met Chuck Gieg while on vacation in Hawaii and the latter told him the true story of the Albatross. Inspired by it and the book Gieg had co-written about surviving the incident, Robinson wrote the screenplay with his close involvement, to ensure it stayed true to the actual events, and took it to producers Rocky Lang and Mimi Polk Gitlin. They shopped it around to various directors but they all wanted to change it to fit their vision. The producers finally brought it to Ridley Scott who bought it before Christmas 1994. At the time, he was considering directing Mulholland Falls (1996) but after reading Robinson’s script in 90 minutes he immediately wanted to do it. He was drawn to the lack of sentimentality and the coming-of-age aspect of the script.
As was his custom with films based on real-life incidents, Scott strove for authenticity and brought Gieg and the real Captain Sheldon on as technical advisors. For the ship, the production used Eye of the World, a 110-foot topsail schooner from Germany. He did not want to shoot the sea sequences in a giant water tank, common at the time, as he felt that the waves never looked large enough or realistic. He studied documentary footage and water patterns to see how they moved and reacted. He and director of photography Hugh Johnson shot mostly with hand-held cameras to get the raw look they wanted. To this end, they filmed four months on the seas, starting in the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, where on the first day got 30-foot seas, “because the crew was so well-versed by then in terms of leaping around this boat and getting camera positions, we dealt with it pretty easily actually,” Scott said. From there they spent most of the time in the Caribbean with shooting the land scenes on the islands of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada.
Scott eventually had to concede using water tanks for the climactic storm sequence that sinks the Albatross. He waited to film this sequence until the end of principal photography as he was dreading it “like a big monster. I didn’t want it to be a 9-minute, crash-wallop-bang and everybody’s in the water. I wanted to experience the whole process of what it means to be shot out of the blue like that, to be trapped, to see people that you got to know quite closely just taken away from you.” He used two water tanks in Malta – one that held six million gallons of water and was 40 feet deep and the other held three million gallons of water and was eight feet deep. Initially, wave machines were used but they did not produce strong enough wind effects for Scott so he brought in two jet engines to do the job. As he said they “basically blew the shit out of the set – 600 mile-an-hour winds.” The storm sequences took five days to film with the production constantly having to worry about the cameras getting wet.

Filming the sequence wasn’t without its peril as Jeff Bridges recalled, “I’ve had some real-life close calls when I’ve been surfing, and I know that feeling of fighting for your life in the water. During the storm scene there were some long takes where we were being hit with wind and waves and being knocked underwater. You don’t worry so much about acting then--you just want to survive the take.” Scott remembered one day of filming: “We got the water pretty churned up and I saw Jeff sticking his arm rigidly in the air with his fist clenched. I thought he might be screaming, ‘Right on,’ but it turned out he was screaming, ‘Stop, I’m going under.’”
White Squall received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "The movie could have been smarter and more particular in the way it establishes its characters. Its underlying values are better the less you think about them. And the last scene not only ties the message together but puts about three ribbons on it." In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Written by Todd Robinson and photographed against beautiful blue skies by Hugh Johnson, White Squall improves when it takes on the daunting job of replicating the title storm. Mr. Scott manages to capture pure, terrifying chaos for a while, and this slow-moving film finally achieves a style of its own." The Washington Post's Richard Leiby wrote, "It's disappointing that a director with the vision of Ridley "Blade Runner" Scott and an actor with the depth of Jeff "Fearless" Bridges conspired to produce such a sodden venture, but Hollywood never seems to tire of flushing multimillions down the bilge pipes." In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Jack Mathews wrote, "The 20 or so minutes we spend with the Albatross in the squall is high adventure, to be sure. Everything else is ballast." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "White Squall is lovely to look at, but frustrating to behold. These boys are fine specimens of American manhood. But they’re unreachable, like ships in a bottle."
White Squall takes more than a few pages out of Dead Poets Society (1989) playbook – a coming-of-age story populated with a cast of young, aspiring actors, most of whom would go on to memorable careers. Scott’s film falters when it tries to replicate the heartfelt, emotional ending of Peter Weir’s film but instead feels forced as the soulless Frank suddenly redeems himself and all the surviving boys rally around the Skipper. It feels false as the film has done nothing to achieve this moment unlike in Dead Poets where its satisfying conclusion was the culmination of everything that came before. Also, the Skipper is such an unlikable character throughout the film it is hard to see why the boys admire him enough to rally to his defense at the end unlike Robin Williams' teacher in Dead Poets who gradually gains his students trust and admiration. Sometimes there is a good reason why a particular film is an outlier in a director’s filmography – it’s not very good. Such is the case of White Squall, a beautifully mounted film, pretty to look at but ultimately with an empty core.

Clarke, James. Virgin Film: Ridley Scott. Virgin Books. 2010.
Crisafulli, Chuck. “Stirring Up a See-Worthy Squall.” Los Angeles Times. January 28, 1996.
LoBrutto, Vincent. Ridley Scott: A Biography. University Press of Kentucky. 2019.
Williams, David E. “An Interview with Ridley Scott.” Film Threat. April 26, 2000.
Wilmington, Michael. “White Squall Director a Visionary without Visual Strategy.” Chicago Tribune. March 15, 1996.