Squall stays afloat

by Dave Sarles

Daily Cougar Staff

Everyone who sees White Squall is going to immediately clue into the similarities between it and Dead Poet's Society. There is just no getting around it.

They both involve a group of handsome teen-age boys, take place in prep school in the `60s and revolve around a charismatic and influential teacher. So, the immense task set out for director Ridley Scott was to separate his movie from the one that came out six years ago.

So what does Scott do to set his movie apart? He put his prep school on a boat named the Albatross.

There are definitely more similarities between the two films than there are differences. This might be attributed to screenwriter Todd Robinson's script more than Scott's direction.

The film is based on a true story, and Robinson actually won best screenplay at the 1994 Houston International Film Festival for his effort.

But just because a film is not entirely original doesn't automatically make it bad. There are, after all, only 32 different plots that Hollywood has to write and rewrite every year.

White Squall is actually entertaining. It won't stick with the viewer like Dead Poet's Society did, but it is a visually captivating movie.

The story is told from the perspective of one of the young students, Chuck Gieg (Scott Wolf). Wolf is relatively unknown in the film world, but gets plenty of attention as the star of the Fox TV series, Party of Five. He gives quite an outstanding performance as Gieg, a young man on his way rather quickly to adulthood.

Gieg and 12 other boys are the students headed toward their individual rites of passage on the two-mast vessel.

The captain of the Albatross is Christopher Sheldon (Jeff Bridges), a stern and wise sailor who is a true lover of adventure. He takes raw young boys and molds them into hard-core sailors. This seems like a terribly tough task, but Sheldon is not afraid to be harsh.

This is seen when he makes one of the boys, who is afraid of heights, climb the mast. The boy screams all the way up and wets his pants, but Sheldon is right there with him.

Bridges is definitely at home on the sea. He actually based the austere and steadfast Captain Sheldon on the character his father, Lloyd Bridges as portrayed in the TV show, Sea Hunt. He spent time on that set as a child and his ease with the sea shines throughout his performance.

There are three other adults on the Albatross. Sheldon's wife, Alice (Caroline Goodall), resident doctor as well as math and science teacher. She is the one who keeps the good captain in check.

McCrea (John Savage), the scruffy Shakespeare spouting English professor, is Sheldon's close friend, and the Cuban cook, Pascal (Julio Mechoso), who doesn't always agree with the captain's harsh treatment of the boys, finishes the adult portion of the crew.

Each of the young men on board have their own typical dysfunctions which helps us sort them out from each other.

There is the introvert Gil (Ryan Phillippe), who is agoraphobic due to his brother's death falling from a tree-house; the wise-cracking and rebellious Dean (Eric Michael Cole), who is actually a slow learner who cheated his way onto the Albatross; Frank (Jeremy Sisto) is the angry youth whose overbearing father causes his self-destructive behavior.

These three boys, along with Gieg, form the circle of friends the movie focuses on.

The crew run into more adversity than their own dysfunctions on the seas. They encounter a Cuban war ship right at about the time the Cold War was in full swing, but the big problem comes when they run into a meteorological phenomenon called a white squall.

It is a huge and devastating freak storm rarely encountered and even more rarely survived. So the question falls on just how prepared the wise captain's young crew was to deal with the devastation this storm brings.

Well, every young sailor doesn't return home to mommy and daddy which causes quite an uproar. The captain even loses his wife. It is quite sad and it could have even been more effective if the characters, particularly the adults, were deeper. There just isn't a whole lot there.

The folks back home are looking for someone to blame for the loss of life, and they definitely don't want to think it was some one-in-a-million storm's fault.

A trial ensues to take away the captains nautical license, and the trodden crew must stick together tighter than ever if they want to save the Captain.

Scott, whose directorial credits include Alien, Thelma and Louise and the visually fantastic sci-fi classic Blade Runner, is no less ocularly superb in this film.

The ocean is magnificent and the white squall itself is stunning to behold, but the characters never quite get three-dimensional. There are strong performances by some talented young actors, but White Squall turns out to be just a semi-enjoyable sea flick with much less substance than it could have delivered.

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