We’ve all heard the sayings that life imitates art and that truth can be stranger than fiction. Those thoughts took on a whole new meaning for me over the past few days.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow in our country and we’re encouraged to stay at home, I think it’s a good time to review a couple movies that happen to be two of the biggest blockbusters in movie history: Jaws and Titanic.
You see, after almost a week of finally acting like he understood that COVID-19 is a serious threat, President Trump has reverted back to minimization and added the idea that “the cure can’t be worse than the disease” in an effort to focus on the economy over lives. The feedback loop between him and right-wing commentators has continued to push this idea that we can sacrifice a percentage of the population in an effort to restore normalcy.
While there are so many things to be said about this approach and its flaws from both a logic and faith aspect, today I want to pretend we’re watching a movie and see how we respond to people who espouse similar thoughts.
Let’s start with Jaws, the first big summer blockbuster movie. Specifically, let’s look at the messaging from Mayor Larry Vaughn as a vicious shark begins to terrorize his small town. If you haven’t seen the movie, what are you waiting for? It’s a classic that’s been around 45 years, and as you’ll see below, has some remarkable similarities to our current leadership approach. Go watch it, and then come back.
The movie opens as a shark attacks and kills an intoxicated young woman who is out swimming in the middle of the night. When the police chief (Martin Brody) starts investigating – the coroner indicated it was a shark attack – and word gets out that he wants to close the beaches, Mayor Vaughn and another citizen confront Chief Brody:
Mayor Vaughn: We’re really a little anxious that you’re, ah, you’re rushing into something serious here. It’s your first summer, you know.
Chief Brody: What does that mean?
Mayor Vaughn: I’m only trying to say that Amity is a summer town. We need summer dollars. If people can’t swim here, they’ll be glad to swim in the beaches of Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Long Island.
Chief Brody: That doesn’t mean we have to serve them up as smorgasbord.
Harry Meadows: We’ve never had that kind of trouble in these waters.
Suddenly the coroner changes his report to say the young woman was a victim of a boating accident rather than a shark attack. Finally, Mayor Vaughn offers one of his most famous lines:
I don’t think you appreciate the gut reaction people have to these things…Martin, It’s all psychological. You yell “Barracuda,” everybody says “Huh? What?” You yell “Shark,” we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.
Not long after, a young boy is attacked and killed while swimming at the local beach, which had remained open due to Mayor Vaughn’s intervention. Chief Brody brings in a shark expert – Matt Hooper – who comes to town to discover that local fishermen have caught a shark and the mayor is praising them for catching the shark that has been wreaking terror on the town. Unfortunately, the size and bite radius of the shark do not match the measurements on the first victim’s body, and Mr. Hooper wants to continue investigating.
Some further research leads to Hooper finding a tooth from the actual shark – a great white – in a boat wreckage, although unfortunately he drops the tooth in the water and is unable to recover it. When he and Brody confront Mayor Vaughn, it doesn’t go well:
Hooper: Look Mr. Vaughn, I pulled a tooth the size of a shot glass out of the wrecked hull of a boat out there and it was the tooth of a great white.
Chief Brody: It was Ben Gardner’s boat, it was all chewed up. I helped tow it in, you should’ve seen it!
Mayor Vaughn: Where is that tooth? Did you see it, Brody?
Chief Brody: No, I didn’t see it. He dropped it on the way in.
Hooper: I had an accident.
Mayor Vaughn: And what did you say the name of this shark is?
Hooper: It’s a Carcharodon carcharias. It’s a great white.
Mayor Vaughn: And you don’t have the tooth? Look, we depend on the summer people here for our very lives-
Hooper: You’re not gonna have a summer unless you deal with this problem!
Chief Brody: We’re not only going to have to close the beach, we’re going to have to hire somebody to kill the shark! I mean we’re going to have to tell the Coast Guard!
Hooper: Mr. Vaughn, you’ll have to contact the Shark Research Panel. You’ll have to ring this entire harbor!
Mayor Vaughn: I don’t think either one of you are familiar with our problems!
Hooper: I think that I am familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and bites you IN THE ASS! Now wait a second, wait a second. There are two ways to deal with this problem: you either kill this animal, or you’re gonna cut off his food supply!
As Hooper continues to plead his case, he offers one of his most famous lines from the movie:
Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all. Now, why don’t you take a long, close look at this sign. [refers to billboard graffiti] Those proportions are correct.
This is an expert opinion from a trained scientist who has studied sharks. He knows what he’s talking about. But here’s Mayor Vaughn’s response:
Love to prove that, wouldn’t ya? Get your name into the National Geographic.
You see, when confronted with scientific support for a logical conclusion and a need to act, the mayor instead attacks the credibility of the expert. He has no interest in hearing facts and responsibly acting on them.
As the key Fourth of July tourist weekend approaches, Mayor Vaughn actually goes on television to spread his misinformation. He is interviewed by a reporter and shared his “optimistic” outlook with the viewing public:
I’m pleased and happy to repeat the news that we have, in fact, caught and killed a large predator that supposedly injured some bathers. But, as you see, it’s a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time. Amity, as you know, means “friendship.”
Shortly after that, the shark attacks again, this time with thousands of tourists lining the beaches to witness the terror. Mayor Vaughn’s actions misled people and directly led to more deaths and putting thousands of people in harm’s way in an effort to save face and the economy.
While watching the movie, you see the shark as the primary antagonist, but it is simply an eating machine (although the filmmakers do seem to imbue it with some level of agency and sinister nature). The true villain is the man who leads the town and is willing to endanger the lives of citizens and tourists in an effort to cover up the truth and “protect the economy.”
Now, I must take a brief moment to offer Mayor Vaughn one note of praise: his wardrobe is impeccable. Unfortunately, leadership goes far beyond looks.
The other movie character that has stuck in my head is Mr. Caledon Hockley from Titanic. While I’ve long argued that his personality is largely a product of his time and that his actions, while by no stretch good, do not uniquely make him more evil than most people raised in his environment and situation (basically, the whole privilege conversation), he has one specific line that stands out for its callousness.
After Titanic strikes the iceberg, the first class passengers are being escorted to the lifeboats. Yet most are still whimsically going about their selfish ways, as Rose’s mother expresses when she says:
“Will the lifeboats be seated according to class? I hope they aren’t too crowded.”
Rose, understandably, is indignant at her mother’s arrogance. Her response:
Oh mother, shut up! Don’t you understand? The water is freezing and there aren’t enough boats. Not enough by half. Half the people on this ship are going to die.
Next comes Cal’s infamous retort:
Not the better half.
There is a willingness – worse than that, it simply comes naturally – for Cal and others in his class to simply dismiss the lives of others as lesser and unimportant. They don’t hold value, or at the very least, don’t hold as much value.
What is the common thread between these two characters from these movies? They are unambiguously the villain of the stories. As you watch and hear them express such shameful ideas, you are appalled that they could even begin to think that way. If anything, you might think that it’s bad writing by making the villains too obviously evil. It’s not believable that anyone would truly think or say such things.
This week we’ve seen just how naïve that belief is. We have political leaders and influential members of the wealthy class – who all have access to the best healthcare due to their status and riches – openly dismissing human lives as less important than trying to grow the economy. They may couch it in praise as selfless acts to ensure America survives, but that’s creating a false dichotomy: there’s no evidence that going about business as usual while millions of people contract deadly disease and completely overwhelm our healthcare system will actually lead to a strong economy. More likely, like Mayor Vaughn experienced, it will lead to a longer-lasting crippling of everything when people more openly witness firsthand the terror.
But even focusing on the merits of such a dichotomy misses the point. Imagine for a moment that, instead of real life, this were a movie about a nation-wide and global pandemic bringing our lives to a screeching halt while threatening to kill millions if we don’t act responsibly. Hearing the president and some of his most influential supporters espouse an opinion that we need to sacrifice certain groups of people in order to boost the economy because “the cure can’t be worse than the disease,” we would react with horror at such a suggestion. We would unquestionably hope for the downfall of those leaders, seeing them for the selfish villains they truly are.
Life imitates art. The truth is stranger than fiction. At least Mayor Vaughn dressed well.