Set adrift

White Squall's pious mythologizing sinks its rousing action scenes

When the new Ridley Scott film, White Squall, really gets rolling, it lives up to the energetic image of its title. The sea rages on like some great, angry ogre of wind and water as a schooner--a floating Outward Bound high school called the Albatross--is mercilessly batted about by a Mother Nature anxious to conquer mere man.

The sense of desperate helplessness at the hands of a force of nature is a universal one, and the awesome power of the ocean rivets you with respect for it. In this battle of nature vs. nurture, it's no contest: Nature wins.

Ideally, that scene, the action climax of the story, would have come about midway through the film, following an introduction to the principal characters--the irascible Skipper (Jeff Bridges), his doctor wife (Caroline Goodall), the second mate (John Savage), and the young students who man the teaching boat, learning about math and literature, but also sailing and comradeship. The squall could have steeled their sense of community, rather than interrupting it, but the scene comes only in the last half hour of the film. The first 90 minutes are an eternity of heavy-handed coming-of-age notions masquerading as classical mythology--a guided tour through the adolescent male psyche, courtesy of Robert Bly.

The guide, a student named Chuck (Scott Wolf), narrates with Virgilian patience, walking us through the hideous valleys of puberty on our way to the pinnacle of self-awareness. He's there to hold our hands and comment on how every detail serves the ascent of the crew into manhood. "I saw a piece of myself in each of the other boys," Chuck confides, but it is clear that he did not because he's uniquely insightful, but because the boys are not otherwise differentiated as individuals. They're all fragments of real people, archetypal journeymen taking their pilgrimages to manhood through the ritualistic use of alpha-dominance, nudity, and sexual prowess.

There's certainly a place for this kind of message-laden cinema, and it might even be a boat, but White Squall becomes so enamored with its own concept, so rabid about explicating the psychological bases for all the characters' decisions about everything, that it passes inexorably from the realm of the mythological into the realm of the self-consciously pious. Included in this embarrassing goulash of rites are the obligatory prostitution scene and Chuck's brief affair with what could only be described as a charter member of the Swedish Bikini Team--a character of such utilitarian purpose that the second she has served her role as sexual liberator, she is never seen or mentioned again. These moments are intended as the means to concluding the boys' journey, but they unintentionally become something else--laughably banal substitutes for a true odyssey, a bizarre synthesis of the Homeric with the homoerotic. Rather than The Tempest, we're given a new hybrid--The Iliad and The Great Santini: Dead Sailors Society.

The script by Todd Robinson, based on a true story, clumsily tries to explain more than it needs to in an effort to provide layers that simply don't need to be shown. There's the unnecessary and completely unbelievable scene in which one adult questions the Skipper's handling of the boys. "You were too hard on him," the concerned (read: doting and weak) adult says. "It's for his own good," the Skipper gruffly snaps, and then launches into his Pocket Dr. Spock diatribe about tough love. The Skipper must act hard to be effective as the classical father-substitute--that's the cost of turning boys into men--but he must also be softened and humanized to seem more likable.

The Paper Chase used the same type of character in the person of Professor Kingsfield, but it had the good sense to keep him aloof and mysterious. White Squall takes a more equivocal approach, so the film comes across as pretentious and patronizing even if the main character doesn't. It's a bad trade-off.

Some actors might have been able to convey the austere love in the Skipper without requiring him to be so evidently a good guy, but Jeff Bridges is not one of them. Bridges' creaking, emotive acting style makes him seem needy for love in an ugly, desperate sort of way. He always sounds as if he's breathing through a Life Saver stuck deep in his throat, so half the time you can't pay attention to what he's saying--you're too preoccupied with wanting to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him.

Wolf fares better as Chuck, owing perhaps something to his uncanny resemblance to Tom Cruise, circa Risky Business.

After Wind, Cutthroat Island, Waterworld, and Ridley Scott's own 1492 (his miserable Christopher Columbus epic), you'd think Hollywood might have realized that the last great ocean-going movie was The Sea Wolf and cut its losses.

White Squall might seem appealing in theory, especially with its exciting finale, but it simply doesn't have the unity to make good cinema. It isn't really a bad movie, just two different ones that don't get mixed well: a thrilling high seas adventure and a rites-of-passage saga with all the subtlety of Legends of the Fall. Its true sin is in not knowing where its own strengths lie; it should have concentrated on being The Poseidon Adventure, but instead decided it wanted to be Lord of the Flies.

White Squall. Hollywood Pictures. Jeff Bridges, Scott Wolf, Caroline Goodall, John Savage. Written by Todd Robinson. Directed by Ridley Scott. Opens February 2.

 
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