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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sea Saga Awash With Vivid Images

Early filmmakers sometimes spoke of working with "molds of light," using the uniquely fluid interplay of illumination and shadow made available by moving pictures to convey moods, sensations, and above all, the sheer wonder inherent in the visible world. It was, as some of the best art is, indirect -- filling the mind with images that could take root, like dreams and memories, in the inner world where we make our meanings.


In such works, the narrative was often secondary -- essential, yes, like the planks of a stage or the typography of a novel -- but not the means by which the artist "spoke." Ridley Scott, the director of "White Squall," the 1996 film now playing at the Americom House of Cinema, seems to stand increasingly in that tradition. Although he has always been a highly visual filmmaker, in such works as "Blade Runner," "Alien," and "Thelma and Louise," his latest movies -- "1492" and now "White Squall" -- depend largely on image to deliver whatever emotional charge they carry.


Although "White Squall" is a much smaller movie than the sprawling, gorgeous mess of "1492," it also relies on two main images for its impact: the sea, and the face of its leading actor. In the earlier movie, it was Gerard Depardieu as Christopher Columbus; here, it is Jeff Bridges as Christopher Sheldon, captain of the school-ship "Albatross." Sheldon is a man of few words -- indeed, the keynote of his character is emotional control -- so Bridges is required to speak volumes through gesture and glance. In the hands of a lesser performer, the role would fall as flat as it was written, but for more than 20 years, since 1971's "The Last Picture Show" until today, Bridges has been one of America's finest screen actors, and he manages to imbue Sheldon with vivid presence.


The film is based on a true story. Sheldon and his wife ran a kind of floating prep school, taking on young men in their last year of high school as a crew to teach them life-lessons about self-reliance and courage (as well as a full range of academic subjects). In 1961, toward the end of what had been a successful sail from the Caribbean to South America and back, the boat was struck by a freak sea-storm known as a white squall and sank within minutes, killing four students and two staff members. Sheldon then faced a disciplinary hearing by the Coast Guard.


From this fascinating kernel, screenwriter Todd Robinson has, unfortunately, concocted a narrative full of platitudes. Every coming-of-age cliche you might expect is here -- the clueless parents, the crusty mentor, lost virginity, facing fears, etc. -- none of them approached with any particular freshness or insight. The ending of the film is the worst; it's contrived and hokey, and comes close to sinking the whole enterprise -- it got laughs from some in the audience when it should have wrung tearsn


Bridges, however, manages to weather even this with considerable aplomb, and saves the scene almost by sheer force of will. Luckily, he doesn't have to carry the entire film in this way, being helped out by a number of good supporting performances, especially Caroline Goodall as Sheldon's wife, Alice, and John Savage, in fine form as the ship's poetry-spouting first mate. The young actors playing the student crew are all good enough to do what the simplistic script requires of them, but none of them registers an especially memorable performance.


Some of the images Scott creates are memorable, although, with the material he has at hand -- a ship at sea with its sails unfurled, the romantic ports of the Caribbean, a volcanic island in South America -- it would be hard not to produce memorable images. Still, he manages to fashion some of these natural beauties into finely wrought gems of light and motion, particularly in the highly effective storm scene.


"White Squall" will not engage you with any of its characters, except Bridges, and you will probably feel disappointed at the thinness of the story. However, if you approach it as a minor work, not expecting to be deeply moved but instead letting its waves of images wash over you, you may be rewarded with a pleasing couple of hours at the movies.





"White Squall" is now showing at the Radisson-Slavjanskaya's Americom House of Cinema, 2 Berezhkovskaya Nab. Call 941-8747 for showtimes. Nearest metro: Kievskaya.