The true story of a 1960 shipwreck should have made for a thrilling cinematic journey. Unfortunately, "White Squall" is loaded down with the ballast of movie cliche and set adrift with rudderless direction.
For a film about an adventure of discovery at sea, this is a curiously joyless exercise.
Jeff Bridges plays Capt. Christopher Sheldon, skipper of the Albatross, a seagoing classroom in a program he calls the Ocean Academy. The program is for high school boys in need of discipline to spend a semester working and studying aboard a sailing ship.
Sheldon operates the school with the help of his wife (Caroline Goodall) and a grizzled English teacher (John Savage) who has a penchant for the poetry of the sea.
The hunk factor is high, as a dozen or so young men who look like male models swagger aboard. In hoping to mold them into a crew, Sheldon barks cliches faster than a college football coach in front of a television camera.
For an hour and 40 testosterone-loaded minutes, we are treated to an awful lot of bilge. There are more tearful confessions than one of those seminars where men go into the woods, beat drums and whine about their fathers, and there's the usual smarmy Hollywood sexual-coming-of-age dry rot. The script by Todd Robinson seems determined to rip off "Dead Poets Society" and set it at sea.
Bridges has little to do but strut around like Capt. Bligh. His character is a combination of every movie drill instructor/strict teacher/sports coach you can think of. Will he be able to mold these young men into a team? If you've never seen this kind of movie before, you might wonder.
The only human elements that ring true are some nice scenes between he and Goodall as a couple with little time for a personal life but with great love for what they do. But these moments are few and far between.
Most of the characters - from the nasty, overbearing, rich father (David Selby) of one of the boys (Jeremy Sisto from "Hideaway") to the sexy members of a Danish girls-school class - are painted with crude, cartoonish strokes, utterly lacking in subtlety.
Only a magnificently filmed storm, the "White Squall" of the title, saves the picture from sinking completely. Director Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Blade Runner") is known for exciting visuals, but here he settles mainly for sunsets and silhouettes. The 15-minute portrayal of an atmospheric anomaly that creates a blinding storm out of nowhere seems to be filmed in real time, however, and is gripping stuff.
Unfortunately, afterward we return to the Dead Sailors Society, drowning in backwater stereotypes until the predictable, anti-climactic finish.