I watched the terrific film “Jaws” again recently and I realized that in light of my readings in the works and experiences of Dr. Philip Zimbardo and Christina Maslach, ( The Lucifer Effect, Why good People do bad things) the film took on new and deeper meanings.
The character of the mayor, Larry Vaughn, played by Murray Hamilton, is really pivotal in the drama. The mayor is in actuality a nice guy, a family man who means well for his little community. “Amity, as you know, means friendship” he states to the television audience in one interview. He wants to see his village prosper during its summer high point.
The concept of a killer shark invading a peaceful seaside summer resort is well suited to the studies of character and reactions to evil the story generates. How the characters react gives us our lesson in human complexity.
The first shark victim, Crissy Watkins, makes a meaningful sacrificial figure. Her death should have sparked everyone to action and to a speedy resolution of the danger. Briefly it heads that way under the efforts of Sheriff Brody, (Roy Sheider) but only briefly. Before he can do a full scale closing of the beaches, the mayor and city council confront him with the statement “Amity is a summer town, we need summer dollars.” At the town meeting that follows, the mayor holds the beach closing down to “only 24 hours.” The local business people are only too glad to see their tourist customers put at risk and the story suppressed, as long as their businesses can prosper as usual (more good people doing bad things). A famous shark fisherman, (Quint played by Robert Shaw) offers to help catch the shark but is put off by the mayor.
The beaches are re-opened and the mayor walks about insisting important citizens go in the water to set a good example. Then comes a major turning point; Little Alex Kintner, only child of the spinsterish, Mrs Kintner, is savagely attacked by the Shark and eaten. A poignant moment is where, dressed in mourning, she confronts Chief Brody and, after slapping him, tells him “you knew all this, and yet my boy is dead, my boy is dead. I just wanted you to know that…” “I’m sorry, Martin, She’s wrong, ” The mayor says as she walks away “No she’s not ..” Brody answers . Following this a local fisherman’s boat and decapitated head is found by an expert from the oceanographic institute, (Matt Hooper played by Richard Dreyfuss). When Hooper confronts the mayor and suggests calling in the coastguard he is also given the brushoff.
The fourth victim, thrown from a rowboat while trying to warn Sheriff Brody’s children and their friends, is finally the catalyst to action. Brody corners the mayor and demands he hire the shark fisherman, Quint, to end the Shark problem. The shaken mayor points out after signing the agreement “Martin, my kids were on that beach too.” The mayor had been “A good person, doing bad things..” After terrible losses he finally saw the light.
In the culmination of the film Dreyfuss’s character (Matt Hooper) is lost at sea and Capt. Quint is killed by the shark. The sheriff, who cannot even swim, rises to the level of a hero and overcoming his earlier trepidation, saves the day by killing the shark. Hooper reappears from under a ledge and the two push floats back to shore.
For me a great lesson here is how people in power by being caught up and focusing on control, business and money, can sink us by leaving us open to great dangers. In our country the eroding of our constitution and our freedoms so big corporations and unscrupulous politicians can control us and illegally mine our personal lives like ore, is a pretty dangerous shark. We need to think like Sheriff Brody, when he finally moved to action, whether we can swim, or not. The “Mayor’s” just not getting the job done.
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