Currently in theaters is All is Lost, a one-man play starring Robert Redford as a nameless man adrift on a yacht in the ocean. The film has earned rave reviews for Redford’s studied, nearly wordless performance, its cinematography and its existential tone. But I couldn’t appreciate it as much more than a well-told survival story. It doesn’t help that, amongst all the other lost at sea films that are out there, there’s one documentary that’s quite similar in theme and subject to All is Lost, but which is much more emotional and resonant.
Deep Water is not about one man at sea but nine. In 1968, the British Sunday Times newspaper sponsored the Golden Globe Race. It was the very first non-stop, single-handed, around-the-globe sailing race. Participants would set out from England and then travel south through the Atlantic, around Africa, past Australia, across the Pacific and around South America and then north back to where they started. They had to do it alone, and at no point could they land. The men who entered the race were all seasoned yachtsmen, save one: Donald Crowhurst.
Crowhurst was a complete amateur, a businessman who joined the race out of a desire to make a name for himself. He was seemingly a Hollywood underdog, considerably less experienced and under-sponsored compared to the other racers, but his story is anything but inspiring. After departing a month later than the rest of the sailors, it didn’t take long for Crowhurst to drift completely off-course, and it was soon apparent that he had absolutely no hope of winning.
But there were four other competitors who simply retired when they couldn’t make it out of the Atlantic. Crowhurst just kept sailing, never making land and sending out increasingly outrageous claims of his progress to race headquarters via radio. He suffered a mental breakdown, as attested by the bizarre quasi-philosophical ramblings he wrote down in his notebook, which were discovered in his beached vessel after his eventual death during the race.
This is the greatest difference between All is Lost and Deep Water: we know nothing about who Robert Redford’s character is but a good deal about Crowhurst and his rivals. In the former film, the protagonist is, I suppose, meant to be archetypical for Man as he survives in the world or something, but it really means that we can sympathize but never empathize with him. Crowhurst’s descent into madness on the high seas is harrowing because he is heartbreakingly familiar as a human being, someone who just wants to do something special. But his circumstances broke him, and we understand why.
Crowhurst is contrasted with the sailors who actually knew what they were doing, who understood what they were getting into. Bernard Moitessier could have won the race, but he rejected the entire spirit of competition and abandoned it. He sailed for the love of the sea, and his trip took him around the world not just once but half again for good measure. The winner (and the only one who actually finished) was Robert Knox-Johnston, who participated out of a sense of patriotic identity, wanting to ensure an Englishman would be “the first,” as if that meant anything. They were fit to survive. Crowhurst was not, and rather than admit this, he concocted a rich fiction for both others and himself. He’d staked all his financial worth on the race, putting his family in distress. How could he just come crawling back home? The film is a riveting look at pride run amok.
All is Lost has a number of great “oh shit!” moments and manages to entertain, but it fails in its philosophical pretensions. Deep Water is a traditional documentary, utilizing interviews, CGI displays, historical footage, voiceover narration (from Tilda Swinton!) and some re-creation. But its conventional construction delivers a powerful cautionary tale about hubris. The doc, directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell, is a much richer piece of work, one of the most underrated and underseen films of its kind. It’s a worthier evocation of the sea and what it’s like to be on it alone. The fact that it does so while using more than one character is a testament to its effectiveness.
Watch Deep Water now via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video (Prime), SundanceNow or Netflix Watch Instantly.