It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"White Squall" is the sort of red-blooded young man's adventure movie that Jack London might have penned, although not quite in this way. Said to be based on fact, it's about a group of high school students who sign on aboard the brigantine ship Albatross in 1960 for their senior year at sea. They'll sail to the tip of South America and back, learning along the way to be sailors, accept responsibility and grow up.
The skipper: Sheldon (Jeff Bridges), a skilled sailor and schoolmaster who believes in firm onboard discipline. His wife: Dr.
Alice Sheldon (Caroline Goodall), who will teach science and be ship's nurse. The English and history teacher: McCrea (John Savage), whose approach to instruction is to wake the lads every morning with loud doses of Shakespeare and Coleridge. There is also a Cuban cook who, true to type, pops up in an opening scene to warn the boys to stay out of his galley. And the ship's motto: "Where we go one, we go all." The emphasis on one for all and all for one, coupled with the high value placed on discipline, adds up to a program designed to make good soldiers, and indeed the cruise seems at times a little like boot camp, with Bridges as drill instructor (a student with vertigo is forced to climb the rigging). Yet Bridges is a likable type who runs a fairly loose ship; he's the kind of skipper to whom a father might say, "I give you the boy. Give me back the man." For Bridges, that includes turning a fairly blind eye to the boys' smoking (not all that common among 16-year-olds in 1960), drinking and whoring around in port (his wife matter-of-factly administers stabs of penicillin). It also involves trust that the young sailors will learn and do their jobs. We sense that he is an expert seaman, although the movie is thin on details, so that in a crucial late scene we are not sure if it was Bridges or one of his young sailors who made the correct decision.
The movie has been directed by Ridley Scott, whose brother Tony's "Top Gun" (1986) provides a model: Assemble a group of young men, distribute good and bad qualities among them, and have them learn through hard lessons that it is best to stick together and follow orders. Women play a secondary role (in this case, limited to the transmission and healing of venereal disease). The underlying orientation of the movie, common enough in the 1960s, is that boys grow up to be men who do neat things together and then go out on Saturday night looking for easy action.