“The Specter of the Shark”
In his seminal film studies essay, “Jaws, Ideology, and Film Theory,” Stephen Heath analyzes Jaws using three ideological filters: the Watergate scandal, the women’s liberation movement, and the Vietnam War. Through only one filter does the 1975 Steven Spielberg film emerge as liberal. Early in the film, the Mayor of Amity Island, in response to a shark attack, has coerced the coroner to change his autopsy report so that the islanders can make money from tourists. Police Chief Brody becomes complicit in the cover-up. In Heath’s eyes, this facet of the plot mirrors the Watergate scandal: the politician with immense power destroys the well-being of the community for his own gain.
However, through the other two filters, Jaws comes up short of advocating for progressive social change. Jaws is a proto-slasher film in which a sexually active woman at the beginning of the film is eaten by the shark. At the film’s first turning point, Chief Brody’s wife is banished from the film by Quint’s salty language as the three men go off to hunt and kill the shark. Heath deems this a backlash against the 1970s quest for equal rights for women. In cinematic terms, feminists demanded that female characters not be reduced to the narrow roles of sexual object and mother, indeed the only female characters in Jaws.
Finally, Heath reads Jaws as an apology for the Vietnam War. In both Jaws and Vietnam, the beaches are the only safe place for Americans. The shark terrorizes swimmers from a murky depth which, via seaweed fields, looks suspiciously like the jungles of Vietnam. In the middle of the film, Quint tells the story of his survival after the U.S.S. Indianapolis was torpedoed during World War II. The last line of his story is “we delivered the bomb,” referring to the atomic weapon that was shortly thereafter dropped on Hiroshima. In Heath’s eyes, when Brody blows up the shark at the end of Jaws, he “delivers the bomb,” something the hawks in the late 1960s believed would win the war in Vietnam, replicating an atomic attack by the United States on yet another Asian nation.
Given this reading, Spielberg’s latest film, The Post is a revelation. The new film represents an embrace of liberalism deliberately designed to intervene against the vast rightward shift of American politics since the neo-conservative revolution of the late 1970s, for which the rise of Donald Trump is the apotheosis (or at least one hopes). The Post tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who steals the Pentagon Papers, classified military documents that prove a series of presidents from Harry Truman onward knew that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. The Post thus makes no maneuver to redeem the Vietnam War, as did Jaws in Heath’s reading.
After the Nixon Administration challenges via an injunction the right of The New York Times to publish the documents, The Washington Post, under the editorial control of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) must decide whether to also publish the documents, despite the threat this poses to the future of the newspaper. The Post chooses to foreground the role of Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep at her finest), the heiress to her father’s publishing empire. At the Supreme Court, The Times and The Post have their right to publish affirmed; six of the nine justices support the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Graham courageously decides to estrange her family’s rich and powerful friends, including their beloved John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Graham is a powerful woman intervening in the patriarchal public space, something not availed any of the female characters in Jaws.
In its final moments, The Post dovetails with Jaws, despite the forty-year gap between the films. The demonic shadow of Richard Nixon, filmed behind the shrubs outside the White House, orders his lackeys to bar The Washington Post’s reporters from his press briefings. The echo of the Trump Administration’s similar despicable behavior deafens, as a security guard at the Watergate Hotel discovers the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
Spielberg has come full circle, now properly linking the reprehensible behavior of Nixon’s abuse of governmental power to the necessary transformations of the role of women in American society, all fueled by the discovery of the folly of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The Post represents Spielberg at his very best, using his immense talent as a visual storyteller, so evident even as early as Jaws, now pointed directly at the systemic flaws of American civilization. The Post offers a precise, coherent critique that the youthful maker of Jaws could barely have imagined. As our current youngsters say, The Post is “woke,” and Spielberg has finally put his old shark to sleep.
Heath, Stephen. “Jaws, Ideology, Film Theory.” Movies and Methods, Volume II: An Anthology. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.