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Review: White Squall (1996)

White Squall (1996)

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Premise: Based on a true story, teenage boys embark on a yearlong voyage to sail around the world under the supervision of Captain Christopher Sheldon (Jeff Bridges).

What Works: White Squall is an enjoyable seafaring adventure. This is a unique film for the time it was made and even now, a decade and a half later, it remains distinct among large Hollywood productions. For one, White Squall does not fit within the categories of Hollywood’s typical output, especially when it comes to big budget films. This is an adventure but it isn’t about pseudo-historical artifacts, the existence of humanity is not in jeopardy, and no one is a psycho-killer or a superhero. This is a film of realistic dimensions about characters working together to survive on the high seas and growing from boys into men in the process. In that there is a maturity about this film that is sorely absent from many of Hollywood products. White Squall is also distinct in the scope, scale, and style of the production. Made in the mid-1990s, there are no traces of computer generated effects and still the filmmakers manage to achieve a grand scale. The authenticity of the settings and the sea adds to the credibility of the film. Director Ridley Scott often pays a lot of attention to the environments of his films and that is obvious in his science fiction films like Alien or his historical epics like Kingdom of Heaven. White Squall does not give him as much to work with, as most of the action takes place on a boat, and yet the film possesses a great deal of detail and it is very well photographed. The realistic dimensions of the film pay off in the climax as the crew attempts to survive the brutal conditions of the ocean. Because the filmmakers could not utilize the tools that created the grandiose and overproduced effects seen in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, the film retains a credible scale and the human element remains front and center. White Squall is primarily about the experiences of the young men on the boat and it has an authentic sense for the camaraderie between the teenagers which is delivered by solid performances from the core cast. Part of the fun of watching White Squall is that the cast includes several young actors who went on to have high profile careers including Ryan Phillippe and Jeremy Sisto. As these boys enter into manhood they cross various thresholds and pass challenges and the picture manages to be quietly profound despite its broad scope.

What Doesn’t: White Squall does run into some problems in its ending. The picture sometimes goes a little flat when the action moves to terra firma and the finale of the film takes place on land. This becomes a problem for the story, which up until that point has been about the boys and their growth, but shifts to focus on the captain. This distracts from the main thrust of the narrative. To some extent, White Squall is a prep school movie on a boat and it shares characteristics of films like Scent of a Woman  or The Breakfast Club and especially Dead Poet’s Society. That makes the film somewhat predictable although it does that coming of age narrative pretty well. The version of White Squall available on DVD has fairly poor image quality. The Blu-Ray edition is purportedly much better. 

DVD extras: Featurette, trailer.

Bottom Line: White Squall is an underappreciated film. This tale of boys becoming men set against the high seas manages to be a lot of fun while also being emotionally and even spiritually enlightening. It is all the more special because it is so unlike the majority of films that Hollywood produces.

Episode: #400 (August 12, 2012)