White Squall Review

by James Berardinelli (JBERARDINELL AT delphi DOT com)
February 7th, 1996

    A film review by James Berardinelli
    Copyright 1996 James Berardinelli

RATING (0 TO 10): 8.0
Alternative Scale: ***1/2 out of ****

United States, 1996
Running Length: 2:08
MPAA Classification: PG-13 (Profanity, mature themes, violence) Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Caroline Goodall, John Savage, Scott Wolf, Jeremy Sisto, Balthazar Getty, Ryan Phillipe, Jason Marsden Director: Ridley Scott
Producers: Mimi Polk Gitlin and Rocky Lang
Screenplay: Todd Robinson based on the memoirs of Chuck Gieg Cinematography: Hugh Johnson
Music: Jeff Rona with contributions by Hans Zimmer
U.S. Distributor: Hollywood Pictures

    WHITE SQUALL combines male bonding drama, high seas adventure, and coming-of-age stories. For his first film since the disastrously dull 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE, director Ridley Scott (BLADE RUNNER, ALIEN, THELMA AND LOUISE) has again turned to the ocean. This time, however, instead of sinking the film with a needlessly meandering plot, he energizes the screen with a movie that gives the audience an involving narrative and characters to care about.

    Based on the true-life memoirs of Chuck Gieg, WHITE SQUALL introduces us to 13 high school students who have elected to spend the 1960-61 academic year on the American schoolship Albatross (a windjammer based out of Mystic, Connecticut). The Captain is Christopher Sheldon (Jeff Bridges), a man who preaches two lessons: the importance of unity among the crew and that "the ship beneath [them] is not a toy and sailing's not a game." His wife, Alice (Caroline Goodall), is the ship's doctor and the boys' science teacher. Other adults aboard are a Shakespeare-quoting English teacher (John Savage) and a Cuban cook (Julio Mechoso).

    The young crew includes Chuck (Tom Cruse look-alike Scott Wolf), an all-American student who wants to break away from his parents' vision of what his future should be; Tod (Balthazar Getty), a tough-as-nails kid who hides a secret; Frank (Jeremy Sisto), who can't escape from under his rich father's thumbnail; and Gill (Ryan Phillipe), a young man with a desperate fear of heights. The trip on the Albatross is their rite of passage. By the end of WHITE SQUALL, those who have survived are no longer boys, but men.

    Given the title, it's no secret that the Albatross runs into real trouble. In nautical language, a "white squall" is a sudden, violent, wind-and-lightning storm that can take the sturdiest ship and snap it in two. However, this meteorological catastrophe doesn't make an appearance until the film's last forty-five minutes. Until then, WHITE SQUALL devotes itself to developing its young characters, their growing admiration for their skipper, and the relationships amongst them. While some of this drama relies on familiar formulas, a capable director like Scott can maintain the audience's attention through a long setup.
    As is typical of a Scott film, the visuals are marvelous. The scenes of the Albatross as it rises and falls with the swells of the sea are majestic, and the fury of the squall is as terrifying an experience as you're likely to find in an adventure film these days. With the aid of cinematographer Hugh Johnson, Scott composes each of these grand sequences carefully, in order to convey the maximum effect.

    Jeff Bridges, who is beginning to look more like his father with every passing picture, is in top form, providing a compelling father- figure/mentor. The role isn't exactly unique, but Bridges brings enough personality to Chris Sheldon to create an interesting character. John Savage, who hasn't done a film in a while, is delightful as McCrea. The young actors playing the boys vary from passable to good, with those having key roles doing the better jobs.

    For nearly two hours, WHITE SQUALL is a completely involving motion picture, keeping its comic, dramatic, and tragic elements in perfect balance. Unfortunately, the need to end with a DEAD POETS' SOCIETY-like catharsis brings the conclusion down. Hopelessly corny and needlessly- manipulative, the last scene is bad melodrama. Mercifully, it lasts only a few minutes, and the overriding image left with the viewer as the end credits roll is not of this silliness but of the Albatross riding the seas in the face of a hurricane-force wind. WHITE SQUALL is a success because the good elements are so well-orchestrated that they dwarf the few obvious flaws. This film offers just about everything, including a twenty-minute white-knuckle sequence and a chance to shed a few tears. In short, it's first-rate entertainment.

- James Berardinelli
e-mail: [email protected], [email protected]
web: http://www2.cybernex.net/~berardin

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