Jaws (1975) invented the summer blockbuster with its outright terrifying pedigree. Yet, something bigger lurks beneath the surface of this Spielberg masterpiece.
Jaws (1975) is a truly special movie. Director Steven Spielberg and writer Peter Benchley captured so much truth about the American dilemma without ever having to opine any politics or dogma. Jaws shows, it does not tell, as it captures the societal qualms of a post-Watergate America. These same challenges are just as pressing today as in any generation; delivered in a thrilling, terrifying package, Jaws is timeless and a quintessential piece of Americana.
Making a Monster
There is more to fear than just an impeccably crafter monster, which Jaws was thanks to art director Joe Alves and mechanical wizard Bob Mattey. There was a deep layer of anticipation that let the fear fester underneath the water’s surface for the first half of Jaws‘s runtime. Famously, Jaws was not always conceived as a movie where the main creature lurked away from the camera. Mechanical difficulties are said to have spawned Spielberg’s idea for having John Williams’ genius, menacing score accompany underwater photography that felt as though it was from the shark’s perspective.
While Spielberg’s inspiration for this style was drawn from film greats like Hitchcock, it became the mold for modern cinema monsters henceforth. Jaws’s spare utilization of its monster jumpstarted Spielberg’s career and the notion of a summer film blockbuster after it became so instantly popular. Building a sense of anticipation was not just the job of the mechanical menace. It required a perfectly believable plot with perfectly believable characters.
Amity Island was the perfect microcosm of class strife in mid-1970s America. The name may mean friendship, and the denizens of the island may have put on a show of total amicability, but resentment for other classes seeped out of every orifice on that island. The residents of Amity Island resented Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) for being an outsider; a New York transplant invading their yuppy New England alcove. The townsfolk, including Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), were all leisure-class folk who would easily sink to a lower class easier with one bad summer’s earning. They were uncomfortable with Quint (Robert Shaw) and his rough, gruff, working-class ways. In turn, Quint was untrusting towards Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) on account of his technocratic, college-educated propensity for always asserting his correctness.
Miraculously, Jaws never seems to attempt to imply any one perspective is right or wrote. Everybody is far too polite to ever express their disdain too loudly or overtly so no one opinion ever gets too much louder than another. As the first shark attack sets up an obvious plot pitting Brody against the Mayor, an audience member could easily see themselves in either or both of the men’s shoes. Safety is obviously so important, but safety means little when there is no livelihood to protect. It is a classic case of Administrative Evil: middle managers like Brody are sworn to work in the interest of the public they serve, but they must also abide by the demands of their superiors. He is stuck unable to execute the decision he knows is correct, closing the beaches. Yet, the Mayor is stuck as well unable to take his expert’s advice because the public he is serving demands of him to keep the beaches open so their business can survive. The vast majority of Jaws‘s audience can relate to every party’s plight, as they have likely found themselves in all three positions many times each.
Requiem At Sea
As Jaws rumbles on, Brody remains the most relatable character. As a bond forms between Quint and Hooper over their respect for one another’s battle wounds, Brody gets left out. He does not belong to either of their groups. As a police chief, he would seemingly fit along with Quint’s blue-collar aura, but Brody is seemingly so inexperienced and prudish that Quint looks down on him. His New York background and drive to study up on sharks and take advantage of any advantage at his disposal is also not enough to align him with Hooper. Hooper is a genuine shark expert and has spent years achieving that status, whereas Brody has only been thrust into his current position in the past few weeks. When Brody suggests that the crew needs a bigger boat, which they clearly do, neither listens to him or even really acknowledges the idea.
In these moments while Hooper and Quint are getting jolly is when Brody is most reflective of what most audiences would consider their own experience. People tend to see themselves as outsiders or as outside of prescribed groups. Few would self-describe as working-poor or as technocrats, even if others would describe them that way. Instead, people see themselves as special and different. Whether that’s to describe themselves as politically independent or economically middle-class, few people admit to belonging to any group or another. This was especially trough in the traumatic post-Watergate period and continues to be true today. Yet, people still have their biases, and while they may Clancy outwardly polite about them like the people of Amity Island do, they still have a strong feeling about whether Quint or Hooper’s shark hunting methods should be the most successful.
Herein lies the magic of Jaws. While Brody and the audience are tossed around in the beginning of the film between a rock and a hard place, an audience might for an opinion over what the right solution to the shark problem is, but Brody never truly does. That is why he takes both Hooper and Quint with him and why he also goes himself. He truly has zero bias and wants to judge both of their methods for himself as the situation evolves. And, even more so, he wants things to play out naturally and for the best methods to win, regardless of what they are.
Jaws never makes it clear who was right. Brute force ultimate was what killed the shark, but Quint died trying. At the same time, had it not been for Hooper’s oxygen tanks, there would have been no explosive to let the brute force to have its full effect. Hooper survives, but some might paint him yellow for having been under water the entirety of the final conflict. There is no resolution to whether any given group was right about how to handle the shark problem, not even the Mayor and the people of Amity Island. The body count could too easily, albeit grotesquely, be justified when accounting for the livelihoods saved by not closing the beach.
It was never Jaws‘s job though to crown a winner to class warfare. If anything, Jaws shows that the lines people draw but never cling to for themselves are totally blurred and largely meaningless. At the end of the day, decisions have to be made. While some decisions might prove better or worse in the long run, what prevails essential is that people do what they believe is right while always listening closely and genuinely to how others might solve the same problems. Different people have different experiences, and no matter how superior anyone may think they are, turning up noses to outsiders, in all senses of the word, might likely lead to disaster.
Jason wants to tell you about his current job, but he’s afraid that it might be more trouble than it’s worth. When not writing, Jason works on food justice and sharing music with communities throughout the region. Or he’s unlocking Xbox achievements.