Most of White Squall, director Ridley Scott's new movie, is splendid in its simplicity; it rehearses an ancient theme — men against the sea — but it does so with muscular unpretentiousness. Only during the extended denouement does the movie unravel into a maritime version of Dead Poets Society, but the mawkish finale doesn't undo all that's gone before. The picture has a Yankee plainness that makes it sturdy.
Scott, best-known for his futuristic, special-effects-laden Blade Runner and Alien, doesn't need much in the way of optical tricks here: He's got the ocean, that moody vault whose next move is always a mystery and a challenge. Most of White Squall was shot aboard a windjammer named Albatross, the fixed point about which the sea, in its countless incarnations, swirls. The movie is full of shots of the changeable sky — clear blue; dotted with puffy cumuli; fringed by distant thunderheads; clouding over ominously, with a purplish veil of rain at the horizon — and the sky tells much of the story. Even a glimpse of storm clouds fills the ship's young crew — and the theater — with a trepidation that's not entirely unpleasant.
The root of the picture's strength, after all, is that men need challenges, whether physical, moral, or emotional — even if meeting them raises the possibility of death. One of the film's earliest scenes is a diving competition in which two of the young crew leap to the water below from ever-higher perches on the mast; everyone — including the two divers — recognizes that the contest is both stupid and necessary. There are moments when Scott and screenwriter Todd Robinson seem to be freebasing testosterone, but for the most part their visions of male risk-taking are exhilaratingly true.
The Albatross isn't just any ship; it's a kind of alternative high school for boys, a means of learning by doing. The captain and master is Christopher Sheldon (Jeff Bridges), a man in his prime who's plainly under control even in highest dudgeon. Bridges, with his mix of brawn and boyish good looks, is perfect in this part; he's just the sort of man an 18-year-old boy would want to emulate. The boys can imagine being him, and therefore they'll do what he says — neither sullenly nor slavishly, but with the sense that he's one of them, first among equals.
Sheldon is astoundingly unlike the parents who appear, richly if fleetingly, at the margins of the movie. The parents of the main character, Chuck Gieg (Scott Wolf), are very much like a dispirited Ward and June Cleaver — decent, gray, worried about money, nearly beaten by life. In their benign mousiness they contrast sharply with the lordly Beaumonts, father of frustrated, psycho Frank (Jeremy Sisto). Mr. Beaumont (David Selby) is a George Bush look-alike with big, preppy attitude; his hapless, rouged wife, Peggy (Jill Larson), smothers her son with embarrassing love.
No wonder these kids are eager to put to sea. They're all ready to break the clinging webs of family and molt the husks of boyhood. Manhood awaits, at the end of an upward clamber whose arduousness they're too young to grasp — or be daunted by. Because they're similar enough not to be too interesting as individuals, Scott and Robinson have taken the precaution of making sure there are a lot of them. It's like Top Gun meeting Mutiny on the Bounty — the forging of a male tribe.
Despite the monot-onousness of half-formed youth, a few members of the crew do stand out, for the most part regrettably. Dean Preston (Eric Michael Cole) is a swaggering daredevil who can't bear to take orders. Gil Martin (Ryan Phillippe) is so fearful of heights that he wets himself when Capt. Sheldon forces him to climb the rigging. And Frank Beaumont has got some world-class problems; when he picks up a harpoon gun, you know it's bound to go off eventually, and it does.
Only Gieg distinguishes himself with any dignity. As Preston and Martin tell him halfway through the voyage, he's the “glue” that holds the group of guys together. Gieg is the smartest and most literary of the lot (he narrates the film from his diary), but he also has the simple physical courage that makes him one of the boys. Scott Wolf, in looks, voice, and earnest intensity, is an eerie echo of Tom Cruise; the two of them in Ray*Bans would be difficult to tell apart.
The “white squall” is a freak meteorological event that besets the Albatross near the end of her journey — a great tidal wave in which the ship agonizingly founders. Scott does a nice job of capturing the chaos that breaks Sheldon's control over his ship and crew, but as dramatic as much of the storm footage is, it still doesn't look quite real. An ocean angry enough to capsize a large windjammer would be far more violent than the bathtub swells and sprays of Hollywood's ocean-disaster tanks, whose water is a little too green and clean for compelling believability.
In the midst of the crisis, Sheldon issues an order to the helmsman, Tod Johnstone (Balthazar Getty), who either doesn't hear, doesn't understand, or disobeys. It doesn't matter, because the ship goes down, carrying with it the lives of the captain's wife, Alice (Caroline Goodall), and four crew members — not to mention Sheldon's good name. The movie's last sequence is a Coast Guard hearing on the captain's competence, which quickly devolves into forced sentiment and ham-handed symbolism.
White Squall is set in 1960, at the dawn of the Kennedy administration, and the picture manages to capture some of the flavor of that time. It's got the fresh-faced white boys, the dock shoes and khakis, the square black glasses; it's got youth's irrepressible optimism. It's got a simple, formidable obstacle — the briny deep — and an equally simple goal: survival. These boys are ready to bear any burden the sea can lay on them. And, as men, they do.
White Squall opens Fri, Feb. 2, at area theaters.