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White Squall
Starring Jeff Bridges, Caroline Goodall, Scott Wolf and John Savage
Directed by Ridley Scott

I saw White Squall a couple of days before it opened, in one of those give-the-ticket-away preview shows, so I've had a week to compare my reactions, to the commercials that have been playing on television. For a while they were "Jeff Bridges on trial" spots, not off the mark but not what the film is about by a long shot. Then we got teen-boys-bonding spots, which is more on the money. White Squall, the movie, is just as unfocussed as the marketing campaign. Which doesn't make it a bad movie. It looks great. It sounds great (Cranky spent many years as a Sound Recordist -- it's one of the things I know too much about.. Bad sound wrecks a movie for me, and White Squall has great sound). But at its core, for me as well as for the two women I was with (and we spent close to two hours talking this out over coffee -- just like film students, oy!) there is a hole.

Problem is, I know exactly what the hole is. If I tell you what it is, I will have given away the guts of the story and ruin its impact for anyone out there who plans to see it. That I will not do. So I'll dance all around the problem, and if you can infer what I mean, then I've gotten my point across. If not, drop me a line and call me a lousy writer. Let's dance....

The year is 1960. This story is true. As Chuck Gieg (Scott Wolf - from Fox TV's Party of Five) reaches his senior year of high school, he has all the problems with his parents that we all did. He is becoming a man, and there is a visible strain between what his parents want for him, and what he wants. He wants to spend his Senior year aboard a floating prep school, the Ocean Academy, sailing a 12,000 mile route from the islands of the caribbean to south america and back. His Dad doesn't like the idea, but his mom paves the way and off he goes, joining 12 other students (11 of whom look very much like he does) on ship.

[sidebar: you want to talk recognition problems? It's 24 hours later - my first draft- and I can't put the names with most of the faces I saw. And I have a cast list in front of me...]

There's [Dean], who looks and behave like a street punk. Greased back hair, cigarette behind his ear. The type of guy who will beat you up at the slightest imagined insult. Which, in his case, is the use of the word "stupid" in any context. When he gets over his problem, he ungreases his hair and -- you guessed it -- looks like everybody else.

There's the blonde kid [Gil, I think], who was extremely close to a brother, killed in an accident while he was away. [Gil] carries his grief like a cross. He keeps a picture of his brother by his bunk like an icon. He is terrified of heights.

There's Frank, who's father [David Selby - best known for work on TV's Falcoln Crest and the cult soap opera Dark Shadows] is incredibly wealthy, and likens his son's voyage to that of a leisure cruise. Frank cannot get out from his father's shadow, or his mother's constant, um, mothering. They follow the ship from port to port Mom cannot let her boy grow up. Dad will not let his son be anything other than what he wants. Frank takes his anger out on himself, drinking himself stupid at a party. And in a scene key to the end of the movie, Frank picks up a harpoon gun and spears a dolphin, inflicting a fatal wound. The Captain (Jeff Bridges) insists that he finish the job. But he can't. He cannot face up to his father. He cannot face up to his act. He cannot face up to his responsibility for that act, and is kicked off the ship.

There are two other dark haired boys, but with no strong story behind them, all I can tell you is that there are two other dark haired boys. Thing is, this was not a bad movie. I was paying attention. See the problem? Back to the dance...

For those of us long past our teenage years, there is the story of Captain and Doctor Sheldon (Bridges and Caroline Goodall). He is the tough one. Everything in its place. Everything done for a specific reason. Completely in Control. The epitome of the stern Father figure that (most of) the boys are trying to get away from. Go figure. She is the surrogate mother. She is as in control of her husband (because she knows when *not* to be) as he is of his ship. It is an interesting relationship to watch unfold for any idea you may have of Bridges character being a one-trick pony disappears when he is alone with his wife. When they dance. Horizontally or vertically. Their last scene together sticks with me more than anything I saw in the film. If you are a couple of relationships down the pike, it is more than enough reason to pay the ticket price.

Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise) wisely keeps the number of boy stories down. It make it easier to follow as they bond together into the crew that Captain Sheldon wants them to be. It made it easier for me to follow along as the rest of the film played out because, as I wrote above, I couldn't tell one boy from another. [except for the blonde.....] Which, in this case, is not a major impediment to enjoying the story. The boys go through the year and share experiences germane to any teenager. Meeting girls and having sex -- some for the first time (in some of the funniest sequences in the film); getting stupid drunk and having your friends cover for you; accomplishing what you thought you could not accomplish, with your friends cheering you on; revealing your most hidden secrets. In short, becoming men.

As the voyage nears its end, as Alan Shepard's Mercury capsule is lifted into its suborbital arc, a freak storm of nature called a white squall hits the ship and capsizes it. Four of the boys and two of the crew die. Frank's father seeks condemnation of the Captain as revenge, even as Frank sits safely nestled in his cardigan. Chuck Gieg makes an impassioned plea to his surviving crewmates. But, in reality, he is really speaking to ghosts.

This end sequence rang untrue for Cranky. Or, as several incredibly insensitive oafs in the row behind me cackled "this is crap." No, it's not crap. But I sat in my seat wondering why I was not more emotionally affected by the deaths of the boys whose stories had played out. I turned and looked over at my friend Clare, a self-described "waterworks", and found her taps closed shut. There was some sniffling, but that was about it. Contact was not made for either of us.

White Squall is better than average movie making. But for me, I have to have a strong sense of, or connection to, the main character, for a story to succeed. Here that character is supposed to be Chuck Gieg. But the smaller stories we see are not Chuck's, for his is dispensed with within the first five or so minutes of the film. So for him to emerge as leader of the crew, only at the very end, rings hollow for me.

Great effects (the squall sequence, though it felt long, was utterly convincing) and Great sound are good building blocks. The solid work of Bridges and Goodall lay a strong foundation; for an old fogey like me, the true emotional heart of the story. But the film is about the coming of age of these 13 (well, 5) boys and their coming together as one unit. But the ending, complete with impassioned self-incrimination and (perhaps overacted) appeals, deflates like a leaky balloon.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for , he would have paid . . .

$5.75

The sound and thunder of the squall, not to mention the glory of the sails unfurling and filling, really should be seen on a big screen. (And are worth something extra.)

Click to buy films by Ridley Scott
Click to buy films starring Jeff Bridges
Click to buy films starring Scott Wolf

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