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Compulsively gripping and artfully crafted, documentarian George Butler’s The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, based on Caroline Alexander’s 1998 best-selling book, serves as an antidote to Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm, another real-life seafaring adventure, which was ruined by trite scripting and movie-star casting.
In 1914, Ernest Shackleton and a 27-man crew set sail from England on the prophetically named HMS Endurance. The Irish-born adventurer’s mission was to lead the first expedition to cross the Antarctic continent on foot. (Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, Shackleton’s rival, had reached the South Pole before him.) Sailing from South Georgia Island to Vashel Bay, the Endurance plowed its way through frozen waters. After six weeks, the vessel was immobilized in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. Ten months later, pressure created by the ice crushed the ship, and Shackleton and his men were forced to pitch camp on an iceberg, where they spent more than five months. During a thaw, the crew packed into three lifeboats and managed to reach the deserted Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five sailors, in a makeshift craft, voyaged 800 miles in 17 days through tempestuous seas back to South Georgia Island, from which they returned to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of the crew.
Butler, best known for his bodybuilding documentaries Pumping Iron and Pumping Iron II: The Women, is indebted to another filmmaker for much of The Endurance’s impact. Frank Hurley, hired by Shackleton to record the mission, shot silent-movie footage and still photographs that Butler incorporates to create a sense of realism that could not have been otherwise achieved. He tints and blends these images with contemporary footage of Antarctica, paintings, drawings, and other graphic material. This collage technique is mirrored by the narration, thoughtfully spoken by Liam Neeson and interspersed with actors reading excerpts from the ship’s logs, the crew’s letters and journals, and testimonies by the seafarers’ descendants.
Although The Endurance chronicles a failed quest, it celebrates the triumph of courage and ingenuity in the face of almost unimaginable obstacles. Instead of attempting to punch up his subject’s inherent drama, Butler opts for a muted, elegiac tone that allows us to contemplate a number of unstressed themes, including the spectrum of English social classes represented by the expedition’s crew and the cruel irony of the sailors surviving their ordeal only to return home to a nation consumed in a battle for its own survival. (Worried about shirking their patriotic responsibilities, many of the company quickly enlisted in the military.) Above all, the film commemorates Shackleton’s heroic leadership, his extraordinary ability to sustain the morale of his men. By shrewdly marshaling provisions and organizing diversions (singalongs, dog-sled races), he ensured the survival of his entire crew.
In an age when even the most remote regions of our planet can be invaded by prying satellite cameras, The Endurance returns us to the mystery and adventure of a world still open to discovery. We haven’t seen the last of Shackleton’s fascinating saga, however. Kenneth Branagh, that ham, has made an upcoming television miniseries about this expedition, and Petersen, no doubt encouraged by the undeserved box-office success of The Perfect Storm, is reportedly considering a theatrical feature about The Endurance’s voyage. But you don’t have to be a fortune-teller to predict that Butler’s intelligent, evocative documentary will remain the definitive screen treatment of this ripping yarn.
Lakeboat, written by David Mamet and directed by Joe Mantegna, depicts a less perilous watery voyage, but few members of its ensemble cast, which includes Charles Durning, Peter Falk, Robert Forster, Denis Leary, George Wendt, and an unbilled Andy Garcia, survive the trip. The script, adapted from Mamet’s first play, should have remained in dry dock. Drawing on his youthful experiences working on a Great Lakes steel freighter, Mamet presents a series of confessional monologues and verbal jousts delivered by the veteran crew members of the Seaway Queen as seen through the eyes of Dale, a newcomer played by the playwright’s younger brother Tony. (Like the inert Rebecca Pidgeon, who has appeared in several recent films by her writer-director husband, young Mamet makes a poor case for nepotism.)
Lakeboat, like many Mamet plays, is about male bonding. Witnessed by wide-eyed Dale, the playwright’s graduate-student surrogate, the crew men spout their crude ideas about booze, cigarettes, action-movie heroes, guns, food, and sex, expiating in the rhythmic, repetitive, profanity-laden dialogue that Mamet supposes approximates blue-collar communication. Although many theater critics have praised this stylized language, the camera’s magnifying, unsparing eye exposes its artificiality.
Mantegna’s claustrophobic direction does little to enliven Mamet’s excessively verbose screenplay. Helicopter shots of the vessel’s exterior fail to obscure the script’s origin as a theatrical talkfest that would be more effectively presented onstage. Subsequent, superior Mamet efforts, notably Glengarry Glen Ross, have inured us to these ignorant, sometimes desperate rants by trapped, middle-aged men, whose macho bravado barely masks their fear and hatred of women. (One character helpfully advises, “The way to a woman’s cunt is right through the cunt.”)
Apart from the incessant palaver, little of consequence transpires. By underplaying, Forster comes off better that his cohorts, who pump the musty material for more than it’s worth. Another Mamet sibling, Bob, supplied the musical scorebrief jazz-combo passages awkwardly inserted to smooth the transitions from one vignette to the next. Midway through Lakeboat, the Seaway Queen’s skipper observes, “It’s surprising what people will convince themselves is interesting.” Few moviegoers possess sufficient powers of self-persuasion to believe that 98 minutes spent aboard this ship of fools isn’t a waste of time. CP