A Movie Buff’s Journey Through COVID-19: Jaws

Surely, you saw the memes. As American cities and states started to reopen despite the raging pandemic, the enlightened yet snarky masses couldn’t help but point out that this felt all too familiar. Just like citizens were being sacrificed to the novel coronavirus in the name of the economy, so too were the vacationers in Jaws allowed to be consumed by a ravenous shark rather than close the beaches for the Fourth of July. If the movie weren’t made decades before, it would be almost too perfect a metaphor.

This metaphor is so perfect that my friend Jackie commented on it immediately as we watched Jaws for her podcast (check it out here). This is impressive considering she had seen neither the movie nor the memes before. Contagion may have gotten the virus science right, but even the filmmakers have now admitted that they could never have foreseen a world where people would fight for their right to put themselves and others in danger or blame the scientists who delivered the bad news. Jaws, on the other hand, got the human behavior aspect exactly right, at least in the States.

So, let’s play this game. I don’t feel the need to use this piece to talk about the massive influence that Jaws had on the movie business, how it cemented the career of a young Steven Spielberg, or any of its vast innovations. Jackie and I discuss that extensively in her podcast and it’s been discussed endlessly elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to take this metaphor to its extreme. If we take Jaws as an allegory for COVID-era America, who exactly should we see in the movie’s four major characters?

The first player should be obvious. Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) has got to be Trump. Now, Vaughn is nowhere near as much of a deluded halfwit as our current president. He’s not what I’d consider an evil character. But he is deeply foolish and ignorant and he matches Trump’s defense tactics in other subtler ways. After the iconic opening death of the girl on the beach, he has his coroner come in and argue that she was killed in a boating accident. After a band of fisherman catch and kill a tiger shark, he is quick to declare the crisis over, even though the dead shark is clearly not the shark that killed two people near the beach. Personally, I’m tempted to name the dead shark Hydroxychloroquine. It has a nice ring to it.

Which brings me to the most obvious avatar of them all. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is a perfect representation of Dr. Anthony Fauci. Hooper is a marine biologist and expert on sharks whose expertise is promptly ignored by anyone with real power. Vaughn and the local fishermen despise him as if he’s trying to spoil their fun rather than save them from certain death. He has little real power, but he’s still the smartest, wittiest, and (arguably) most likable character in the movie.

Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the main protagonist of the movie, is harder to map. It’s tempting to call him an everyman representation of the American citizens under Trump’s rule, but I don’t think that quite works. The American people already have hundreds of stand-ins as the tourists on Amity Island that practically line up to be fed to the shark rather than sacrifice an Independence Day vacation. No, the more I think about it, the more I see that there is only one real answer to the Brody question. I hate myself a little for even thinking it but it’s the only solution: Brody is Joe Biden.

Now, before you scream at me for even daring to be so naïve and delusional about Trump’s challenger, I need to provide a crucial clarification. You see, Brody isn’t Joe Biden as he actually exists. Brody is Joe Biden as we wish for him to be.  He’s the guy who stands up to Vaughn and says enough is enough. He’s the one who says, “Smile, you son of a bitch” and cleans up Vaughn’s mess with one well-placed bullet. Joe Biden will obviously not be able to accomplish this. COVID is not a single entity you can just blow to kingdom come and Biden is neither that cool nor that competent. But at this point, we’re allowed to dream just a little.

Which leaves Quint (Robert Shaw). He’s another tough one but I think I have him. He’s not anyone specific but is more of an archetype character. Quint is, as John Oliver once so elegantly put it, your dipshit uncle. Now, right away I know that this is not a perfect comparison. Quint might be kind of a nut and is surely an insufferable person to be around but he’s still a bona fide badass. Your dipshit uncle, on the other hand, is a weak little dullard who likes to talk a big game about standing up to the government who would dare mandate that he wear a mask for the safety of himself and others but folds like a bad hand as soon as anybody with any semblance of authority challenges him to his face. The parallels are still there. Quint mocks Hooper’s academic credentials and acts out like a child when the shark evades him one too many times. He takes his frustration out on their radio equipment, stranding them in the open ocean with a killer shark still circling them. The natural end result of his ignorance and ego is his death at the end of the movie, as the fish he was sure he could defeat violently devours him.

So, this has been a fun thought experiment, hasn’t it? I kind of enjoy imagining Jaws as a two-hour examination of American failure during the coronavirus crisis. It doesn’t necessarily make the state of the world any easier to swallow. In fact, it’s pretty disconcerting that it fits so perfectly into the story of a bloodthirsty sea beast. But it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Japanese filmmakers worked nuclear anxiety into the first Godzilla movies. Why can’t we celebrate Jaws as a prophetic vision of a land ravaged by diseases and incompetent leaders, even if it is a little too optimistic a take? There are already so many other reasons to continue to watch and enjoy an iconic movie like Jaws today. There’s no harm in adding one more.

Also, listen to the podcast.

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