Jaws – 1975 – dir. Steven Spielberg
No critique by an amateur film critic could ever refute the monumental experience that is Jaws. It’s possible to examine the socio-political themes in Amity Island, the class struggles between characters, and the great battle of man versus nature; but to unveil a hidden flaw, an imperfect note in this film, is impossible. The film is good. So good in fact, most fans can probably recall their first time witnessing it, that experience of hiding behind their hands from an unseen monster. It’s cinema’s Moby Dick and once again, in the chaotic world outside the theater, we can again bear witness to life imitating art.
Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) left New York for a new beginning on Amity Island, a New England town, (filmed on location in Martha’s Vineyard) to redeem his hope in humanity and remind himself that he can make a difference. Always by the book, readily cautious and sincere about the safety of his town, he plays by his instinct. But caution doesn’t measure into the Mayor’s financial needs to keep the town afloat. “It’s all psychological. You yell ‘barracuda,’ everybody says ‘huh, what?’ You yell ‘shark,’ we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.” Despite the everyman’s gut instinct, danger abound, the Mayor’s voice reigns supreme, making Chief Brody an enemy of the people. Needless to say, the conflict between the public’s safety and the town’s financial stability is a duel of the ages, and just one of the many predominant themes that make our protagonist all the more agreeable.
Then the trouble really begins.
Some of society’s greatest flaws are captured in the little town of Amity. Panic-stricken beach lovers trample the elderly at the first sight of a dorsal fin; hundreds of fisherman unleash their fury only to catch the wrong predator. Mob mentality takes over until it’s publicly confirmed that a sharks on a spree. Written in the pages of film lore is the developmental hell the young Spielberg endured, from a faulty robotic shark to a drawn out production millions over budget. The audience is along for the ride as we’re consistently shown the other’s reactions of others as the grisly killings continue, making it all the more fun, and examining the par excellence of suspense done right. Finally we’re given a shark expert (lovable, marine biologist, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss)) to encourage the mayor once again to close the beaches. Still, “those beaches will be open.”
The story takes off once Brody’s own son has a close call with the shark. Paternal instincts kick in and the chase forces three different types together, introducing the hell-bent, Ahab type Quint, (Robert Shaw,) to bring the brute force of revenge into the animal’s demise. Not only is the audience allowed to see the educated versus working class plummeted into a life or death situation together, but the sheer characters blossom in this ultimate trifocal of perspectives, giving the film a whole new meaning now that they’ve left their safe piece of land. Once on the Orca, the Chase starts; then comes the real test of time. Wait for the rollercoaster conversation of each man sharing his own scars, when Quint’s experience aboard the Indianapolis is revealed. Again, a page from the book of film lore cites Shaw, the famed Irish actor, giving his lines heavily inebriated, only to come back and film again the next day, hitting an equally severe home run to solidify the speech. (It’s said they used bits of both takes.)
But it’s not just the twist of Brody’s dumbfounded ignorance of seamanship, Hooper’s educated arrogance, or Quint’s personal quest to rid the world of sharks, but rather the mixture that envelopes each of them as they face every obstacle that comes their way. Slowly, all façade of their on-land personalities drift away as they fight for their lives. Each fuse is shorted by another mishap on the old boat that Brody insists needs to be much bigger. As the faulty shark failed to act on cue, much of the chase is following the iconic yellow barrels that indicate its presence. A symbiotic test of strength occurs between the two parties as Quint tries to undermine the shark’s strength. “Not with three he can’t,” he says assuredly, knowing the shark can’t possibly be strong enough to stay under with three barrels attached. And yet again, the shark flag slips beneath the surface, leaving the boat badly damaged at the hands of its Captain. This incident catapults his frustration (and fear) into a farther realm of madness, only to swallow his pride and allow Hooper to test his scientific theory that drugs, rather than harpoons, can take down the beast.
Of course the chase is pure cinematic gold. So entertaining are the trial and errors of the three characters that they at one point smile, all the more aware that they are no longer fueled by their roles in society, but merely buccaneers singing their pirate songs in the galley – only to awake to a thunderous slamming against the hull as the shark asks for more. Whatever producers (or the young Spielberg) feared as the film dragged on months over shooting was put to rest when Jaws changed the history of film forever.
Hooper tries to break through to the arrogant Mayor, past his financial woes, fervently fighting for the security of the good people of Amity saying, “Mr. Vaughn, [Mayor] what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine.” He goes on to say, “All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks.” Jaws became the highest grossing film of the time, and was ultimately responsible for what we now term “blockbuster.” Released simultaneously in more theaters than ever before – sheer eye-candy – this fast-paced movie engrossed the studio system in mountains of revenue, sparking the all-consuming Hollywood blaze we live in today. Could we see this as a flaw? Professional critics may say so, but as I said before, the film is really good. Jaws is monumental. Most importantly, Jaws is an experience. What more can we ask for from a film?