The Huge Little Moments in Jaws, The Original Blockbuster
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is credited for starting the summer blockbuster for good reason. It brought mass audiences to experience a high seas thrill-ride and monster movie. But what gave Jaws its staying power? Furthermore, what gives that power to Spielberg’s filmography?
Chief Brody, at home with his family, rests his hands over his face, sighing. He blames himself for the death of a young boy. How could he not? Brody was aware of the possibility that a shark was in the water even before Hooper came to the island to confirm the findings. Not wanting to stir up waves for Mayor Vaughn looking to make Amity some quick bucks cost a child their life. The child’s mother knew it. Brody knows it. He’s tired, slowly dragging his hands across his face. What a day. Sean, the youngest member of the Brody clan, slowly begins mimicking his father until both have a lighthearted back and forth as Ellen Brody looks on.
Jaws maintains its sheer blockbuster power by remembering to focus on the smallest gestures and details. Ellen Brody looks on at her husband and son mimicking one another at the dinner table. Brody and Hooper crawling along the side of Quint’s ship, the Orca, one even missing a footstep. Hooper, Quint and Chief Brody drunkenly comparing scars and singing in between shark attacks. Clumsy, tangible human moments makes what could have simply been an effective monster movie into something more.
The direction and script are so sharply efficient, it reminds us how it’s not what a film is about as much as how it’s about it. The first half of Jaws plays like almost like a mystery film, trying to piece locations and victims together to prove the existence of a killer shark. The back half of Jaws, men entrenched at sea in the deadliest game of cat and mouse with the shark, is a set piece dedicated to people talking with one another. There is a rigorous adventurous nature to it all, John Williams even comparing it to Spielberg as a pirate movie, but the principle moments that bond the characters are less big in the spectacle of production. They are spectacles of character.
It’s right on the cusp of grasping the Amblin style Spielberg magic from Close Encounters of the Third Kind onward, while still being much harsher than his classic oeuvre might remind you. A child dies, screaming and gushing blood out of the ocean. For a movie that has become a classic summer staple for families, it is unforgiving in who becomes shark food. Never extraneous or gratuitous, there is an emotional truth to the citizens of Amity Island. Honestly, the same could be said about any bit of Spielberg’s work. He’s one of America’s great filmmakers, if not the great American filmmaker. He can craft spectacle with the best of them. Even critically divisive Indiana Jones entries feature one or two outstanding sequences of action. But even those can’t match the power of Sean comforting his father at the dinner table with a cute back and forth.
The magic of Spielberg is in his humanity, focusing interactions between people and environments that capture beauty both big and small. We cheer when the Brody blows up the shark. We cherish the moments at the dinner table. When Brody does come face to face with the shark, we never forget what he’s fighting for. Smile, indeed, you son of a b-.