Just When We Thought It Was Safe to Go Back into the Water

We can learn a lot about how to manage COVID-19 from the classic movie Jaws.

Posted Jul 19, 2020

Like the residents of Amity Island who have been terrorized by a Great White shark, we want to go back into the water.

But when will it be safe?

It seemed we had COVID-19 under control, but not anymore. The virus, like the shark in Jaws, will do what nature designed it to do. It’s not personal. It’s not political. It takes no prisoners. You have to flatten the curve. Deal with it now, or it will feed on you later.

The parallels to the Steven Spielberg’s classic summer blockbuster movie -- so deftly made, so marvelously acted -- are uncanny and disturbing. Is there a movie that has aged better than this one, now at 45?

After the first shark attack, the mayor of Amity, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), dismisses the threat and attributes the attack to a boat propeller. Like many of our leaders today, top to bottom, Vaughn is in a tough position. The tourist season is summer dollars; the beaches must open. Yet Vaughn knows he must also preserve public safety. In balancing these interrelated concerns, he devalues safety in favor of opening the beaches.

Vaughn’s decisions are understandable. Tourists will take to the hills at the word “shark.” And like any leader confronting the virus today, Vaughn’s dilemma is a tightrope walk. However, by ignoring, covering up, and disfiguring the accumulating facts about the threat, he fails as a leader. He does close the beaches after a second attack, the fatal mauling of a young boy, but he is too quick to conclude that a Tiger shark, soon caught by some fishermen, is the shark that did the killing.

And he rejects science.

Shark expert, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), hired by Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) of the Amity police department, examines the body of the first victim and concludes that her wounds do not match the bite radius of the Tiger shark. Hooper wants to examine the contents of the shark’s stomach to verify that it was not the killer. Vaughn nixes this plan, definitive as it might be, because it would be too upsetting to discover the human remains he believes, wants to believe, are likely there.

Hooper and Brody secretly examine the stomach, confirming Hooper’s assessment. They find evidence of yet another shark attack when they come across a sunken fishing boat. It has a hole in its hull and a huge tooth characteristic of a Great White stuck in the splintered wood. Unfortunately, Hooper drops the tooth when the severed head of the fisherman rolls into view. And, later, because Hooper and Brody cannot produce the tooth, Vaughn wills the facts to fit his main concerns, deeming all this evidence insufficient to close the beaches (“. . .we will be open for business; it’s going to be one of the best summers we’ve ever had.”).

Hooper has a cocky, off-putting style, but his expertise being dismissed smacks of a certain anti-science mentality on Vaughn’s part. The facts disturb his economic priorities.

Of course, we see a version of this divide in how Americans have responded to the virus with respect to science. Our reality may seem stranger than fiction.

And so the beaches of Amity Island re-open.

But the shark attacks again, killing a man and traumatizing a boy who saw it happen. This is the inflection point for Mayor Vaughn and all the residents of Amity. The beaches close and will stay closed until the shark is caught and killed. The town commits the necessary resources to hire Quint (Robert Shaw), an experienced shark hunter.

Most readers will know the rest of the story. Quint, along with Hooper and Brody, do manage to hunt down and kill the shark, but not before an epic struggle in which the shark demolished Quint’s boat and devours him alive.

Where are we in our own ever-worsening national calamity?

It’s a fascinating thing about Jaws that no one sees the shark until far into the hunt itself. COVID-19 is also an invisible enemy with features we imagine to fit our separate temperaments and beliefs.

Only when Brody sees the shark for the first time does he realizes how much “bigger” a boat was actually needed to vanquish this terrifying, pitiless beast.

Perhaps it will take a much bigger surge, causing more of us to feel the intimate, personal costs of this virus, for us all to set aside our differences and get behind a plan for bringing COVID-19 to its knees.

References

Gottlieb, C. (2012). The Jaws log: Expanded edition (shooting script). Dey Street Books.

Jankiewiez, P. (2009). Just when you thought it was safe: A Jaws companion. BearManor Media.

Smith, R.H. (2020). Blockbuster. Twice Told Tales Press.