What made Sir Ridders want to embark on White Squall? He’ll probably say the screenplay, since he received it on the same day Crisis in the Hot Zone, his Ebola movie starring Jodie Foster that found itself competing with Outbreak (and she with Robert Redford for screen time), was cancelled; he took a mere ninety minutes to decide it was for him. Which is about right, since he wouldn’t know a decent script if it came with an Oscar attached as a paperweight.
But, beyond simple frustration and desperation, did he fancy more seafaring after 1492: Conquest of Paradise? Or the challenging of realising a perfect storm on screen? Or… the characters? Nah, couldn’t be the latter. There ended up being four years between 1492 and this, leaving the ’90s as a rather fallow period for the director. One rather gets the sense Scott didn’t know which way was up at the time, hence the subsequent G.I. Jane (which at least, in its own crude way, is moderately entertaining). White Squall is a long-winded bust, possibly intended as an open-ocean answer to Dead Poets Society but failing to imbue any of the empathy and character-building of Peter Weir’s Oscar-winner.
It’s certainly a contender for the least-seen Scott picture, a period piece set in 1961 charting the demise of the sailing vessel Albatross when it was struck by the titular windstorm – which some claim is the stuff of myth. The Dead Poets Society vibe comes via Jeff Bridges’ maverick “Skipper” Christopher Sheldon, an eccentric disciplinarian who inevitably earns the respect of his just-joined crew of immaculately clean-cut school lads. And the ire of a few too (which plays into the concluding trial passage).
Bridges, a couple of years shy of “Dude” status, has now effectively and seamlessly progressed to mentor roles. He’s good as far as it goes, but this isn’t a picture where you really get an insight into the motives of the man, concentrating as it does more on the lacklustre ensemble of lads. There are other adult players along for the voyage; John Savage is memorable as English tutor McCrea, seemingly channelling Richard Dreyfus’ ’70s persona, while Caroline Goodall makes much of a limited role as Sheldon’s wife Alice. David Selby is suitably hiss-able as the father of one of the boys (who is expelled from the boat) and Zeljko Ivanek is effective cross-examining Sheldon during the final hearing sequence.
There are several problems fundamental problems, however. One is that Scott simply hasn’t assembled an engaging cast of youngsters. A couple of them (Ryan Philippe, Balthazar Getty) have managed a reasonable movie footprint since, but Party of Five star Scott Wolf is entirely insipid as the lead and narrator. Worse, the picture spends interminable amounts of time on their minor obstacles, impediments and rites of passage, all fuel for their team-building and fostering mutual respect.
Tanned and white t-shirted, they’re shot by Scott like he’s under contract with Persil, and the results are just as anodyne (some of have suggested the picture is unintentionally homoerotic, but it’s too bland for there to be even a hint of sexual tension). He includes various pop hits of the period, has sequences with the shipboard rebel, and a dance with some girls, and bouts of emotional upheaval (the tough guy can’t spell!), even a contretemps with some dastardly Cubans (the director evidently gearing up for Black Hawk Down’s loathsome foreign enemy there), but the characters never develop beyond standard-issue teen types (they aren’t even sufficiently well-defined to be labelled archetypes).
We’re subjected to more than an hour-and-a-half of this before the main attraction, which is why we’re all watching, the few of us who are, and that entire time really does feel like laborious prelude. Todd Robinson’s screenplay (from The Last Voyage of the Albatross by Charles Gieg) is numbingly literal, shuffling through each pre-appointed marker with deliberate lack of nimbleness and dexterity.
In his favour, Scott is still in the zone of feigning to build inhabitable worlds, however fallow, prior to his post-Gladiator descent into vacuum-formed production line assemblies. The problem is, as fine as the vistas are, and welcome as the luxury of actually holding a shot for a spell is, there’s no negligible content to support it. If Black Rain failed by trying to overlay his technique on crass thriller plotting, White Squall flounders through showing he has no aptitude for teenage dilemmas. When the kids are granted shore leave to explore an island for a spot of Lord of the Flies bonding, you’re left mulling that this would all have been much more impressive had Scott drafted in David Attenborough to discuss the flora and fauna of the area over the soundtrack instead. That’s the real difference between why this failed and another doomed crew disaster movie – The Perfect Storm – succeeded. For all the latter’s deficiencies, it had a couple of leads you could invest in.
The main event then, and Scott handles it with the expected proficiency. It even gives Bridges, who has been stuck with a stock firm-but-fair type until this point, a couple of moments where he can lift the proceedings; the look in his eyes when he sees the squall, and recognises just how bad it is, is worth a thousand establishing shots in convincingly stricken water tanks. Later, he must look down on his wife, trapped within the sinking vessel, with no recourse but to leave her to a watery tomb.
The trial that follows seems curiously perfunctory, but then Scott’s whole movie has that prevailing sense of uncertainty over just where its focus lies, even though that’s obviously the eye of the storm; its director isn’t looking to his characters, understandably, as they’re bereft. When the kids press around Bridges for a “Skipper, my skipper” moment of solidarity, completely with a ringing bell from his betrayer, it’s supposed to be a pride-swelling, emotive moment akin to the standing on desks in Dead Poets, but it elicits no response at all.
Scott went through this before, of course. After his attempt at a character piece in Someone to Watch Over Me, he made the sort of film expected of his brother with Black Rain. After this, he would do it again, with G.I. Jane. I recently read a contemporary review of Someone to Watch Over Me, one that one couldn’t imagine being lavished on the director now. Harlan Kennedy waxed lyrical about Scott’s flair for mythmaking, buying into the idea that his visual sense overlaid an entire storytelling design upon any material he chose to tackle. Such a spin was understandable back then, since his subject matter had entirely lent itself to such readings. Less than a decade later, no one would be giving him the benefit of the doubt. One might read the mythic into this picture, but it’s unmoved by such concerns. At least, unlike some of his later efforts, in terms of his own well-honed technique, White Squall isn’t a pedestrian piece of filmmaking, but it is entirely unremarkable otherwise.