I may not be the first to sloganize White Squall (Hollywood Pictures, PG-13) glibly as Dead Sailors Society, but I’m sure I won’t be the last. What quicker way is there to capture the romance of young men in a floating prep school in 1960 who learn important Life Lessons from a charismatic skipper than to cop a reference to a six-year-old movie about the romance of young men in a stationary prep school in 1959 who learn important Life Lessons from a charismatic English teacher?
White Squall is, however, a Ridley Scott creation, and therefore this rousing salute to the power of the elements, the lost innocence of the Kennedy era, and the goodness of young men when they are allowed to ripen with their shirts off is, above all, a tone poem. The sky never looked so blue and the oceans never heaved so awesomely as they do in this adventure saga inspired by the real story of a two-masted sailing vessel called the Albatross. Yet, oddly, because of this polished visual control, the reminiscences of former crew member Chuck Gieg, played and narrated by Party of Five‘s Scott Wolf, never quite come to life with the kind of intensity such a saga would suggest.
Gieg tells of 13 high school-age boys who ship out for a 12,000-mile adventure under the stewardship of skipper Christopher Sheldon (Jeff Bridges). Along the way, they face personal challenges and moments of danger in the Cold War climate before the Cuban Missile Crisis and learn (in some pedestrian dialogue from screenwriter Todd Robinson) that they are only ”as strong as [their] weakest link.” And then, toward the end of their voyage, the title catastrophe occurs: A devastating white squall — a freak storm system, rarely encountered — results in tragedy. What Scott is most interested in, though, is not the complexities of Sheldon, comfortably played by Bridges in evident homage to dad Lloyd’s TV years on Sea Hunt. Nor the relationship between Sheldon and his doctor wife, played by Disclosure‘s Caroline Goodall. Nor the moral growth of Gieg, honorably essayed by Wolf in homage to the early career choices of Chris O’Donnell, or with any of Gieg’s classmates.
Above all, what Scott — a former student of painting and graphic design — wants to convey is the texture of the sails, the composition of the boys as they swab and batten and unfurl, the movement of the water that tells as much of the story as buttes and canyons describe his Thelma & Louise. As a result, White Squall is lovely to look at, but frustrating to behold. These boys are fine specimens of American manhood. But they’re unreachable, like ships in a bottle.