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Another chance to make a good sailing movie lost at sea

2014 March 6

I should have written this column months ago, right after I saw the Robert Redford sailing movie "All is Lost," but I wimped out.

Critics went gaga over the film. ("The number one performance of the year," gushed Time magazine; "Robert Redford gives the performance of his life," the New York Times movie critic opined lavishly.) Three of my SAILING colleagues saw it and gave it a thumbs up.

I thought it stunk.

Fearless sailing pundit that I am, hardened in the crucible of newspaper journalism, I should have reported that to my readers right away. But I was daunted. All the critics' raves, all the speculation that the movie and Redford would win Academy Awards, all the approval by my staff. People would think I was daft if I wrote what I thought of the movie.

Well, in spite of the hype, the Academy Awards dissed "All is Lost" by giving it nothing more than a nomination in the arcane category of sound editing, and now it's time for me to confirm that "All is Lost" is as much an ordeal for moviegoers to watch as it is for Redford's shipwrecked character to experience.

Let me summarize the story for those who have not endured it in a movie theater. The man played by Robert Redford, the only human in the movie, is sailing alone on a Cal 39 in the Indian Ocean. The boat collides with a shipping container, gets a hole in its topsides and takes on copious amounts of water. Redford fixes the hole, climbs the mast to check the antenna of his soaked VHF radio, reads a book on celestial navigation, gets tossed overboard in a storm, gets back on board in time for the boat to capsize and start sinking. He repairs to his life raft.

If any of that sounds exciting, it's not. It's tedious. In the movie, Redford suffers for eight days. In the theater, I suffered for 106 minutes that seemed like eight days.

I don't blame Redford for this. Fit and handsome in a gnarly way befitting his 77 years, he had to play a character who had no name but might as well have been called Job the Sailor, so unrelenting are the Biblical-grade tribulations that befall him. Since there are only a few words in the movie, Redford has to express his character's misery with world-class grimacing, which he does with aplomb.

So I guess it's the fault of J.C. Chandor, who wrote the screenplay and directed the film. I hate to say that because Chandor is a talented guy who wrote and directed the terrific 2011 film "Margin Call." What's more, he's a sailor. "Margin Call" was a riveting drama, a thriller you couldn't take your eyes off of.

It's surprising "All is Lost" isn't a bit like that because, in the written word at least, there is almost nothing more compelling than survival stories, and some of the best of them are shipwreck stories.

SAILING's library shelves fairly creak with them, from the castaway tales of Alexander Selkirk and Robinson Crusoe to the likes of Steve Callahan's Adrift (76 days in a life raft compared to Redford's day or two); Survive the Savage Sea, the Robertson family's 37-day life raft ordeal; Maurice and Maralyn Bailey's 117 Days Adrift; the epic chronicles of Shackleton and Bligh's survival against impossible odds and dozens more. Some of the writing is polished, some amateurish, but these books have page-turning drama in common. It's what makes stories of human survival irresistible.

I waited for the drama in "All is Lost," but it never came. What came instead was a numbing sense of inevitability. From beginning to end, everything Redford touched went bad; one disaster followed another at predictable intervals. So when, on perfectly flat water, he clambers into a large, canopied, new-looking life raft that would surely have been stocked with survival rations, you just knew the water supply would be tainted with seawater, there would be nothing to eat, attempts at fishing would fail and Redford would despair-all of this after little more than a day in the raft.

I can identify with despair-it struck me out of sheer disappointment, not to mention tedium, before the movie was half over. At one point, Redford, all but overwhelmed by his latest calamity, looks to the heavens and lets go with a great shout of the world's most popular expletive starting with "F." You have no idea how badly I wanted to stand up in the theater and repeat his line.

I'll take a break here to commend the writer-director for one aspect of his work and separate myself from the annoying know-it-all sailing nerds who have been picking on the film in various forums with absurdly trivial complaints about the things Redford does that brand him as a less than competent sailor. In an interview with SAILING Executive Editor Erin Schanen, Chandor explained that making mistakes was part of Redford's character. "He's not supposed to be the most experienced sailor on Earth," he said.

With that approach, Chandor added a nice touch of verisimilitude to the film. You can count on it that a good many of the sailors who buy a sailboat and take off on their around-the-world fantasy cruises make the same mistakes Redford does in the movie.

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure not many sailors would set fire to their life rafts to get the attention of a passing ship as Redford does in the penultimate scene. This is not going to make it as a blurb in any ads for the movie, but here's the most generous take I can come up with: "All is Lost" is an earnest effort by an accomplished director and a fine actor that keeps a cinematic record intact: There has never been a good sailing movie.