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Movie Review: Deep Water

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One of the enduring myths of Western culture is that of the amateur who triumphs against insurmountable obstacles. From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Rocky II, it is a myth that has informed cinema for decades. Deep Water, a fantastic new documentary from Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell, reveals it for the absurd fantasy it is. The fate of the novice, when matched against the might of an uncaring universe, is typically oblivion. Osmond and Rothwell find this lesson writ large in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.

In 1967, Francis Chichester became the first man to single-handedly sail around the world. Queen Elizabeth II would knight him for the effort using a sword once belonging to another British sailor of note, Sir Francis Drake. Chichester's journey sparked a frenzy in England and the Sunday Times offered a prize of £5000 to anyone who could circumnavigate the globe, with the caveat that they could not stop for repairs as Chichester did. The response to the challenge was immediate: nine brave men would undertake the lonely, dangerous journey.

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Included in this group were noted yachtsmen, Robin Knox-Johnston and Bernard Moitessier, but one entrant in particular captured the public's imagination: Donald Crowhurst. Crowhurst was, as the film notes, no more than a weekend sailor, but something in his spirit convinced him that this was a task he must undertake. Very likely, that something was the chance to save his failing electronics business. Staking his house as collateral, he set sail in a custom-made trimaran on the last official day of the contest, October 31st, 1968.

That Crowhurst failed in his attempt is obvious early in the film. What's so compelling, though, is that we see exactly how it happened. Crowhurst took a 16mm camera and a recorder with him and--amazingly--virtually all of the material he captured survived his disasterous trip. As the film unfolds, we see Crowhurst dissolving before our eyes. Afraid to go forward because he fears death in the Roaring Forties, he is equally unable to go back and face certain bankruptcy. And so he simply lingers for months alone in the Atlantic Ocean, going mad.

I won't reveal any more than that for Deep Water has significant turns and twists to offer. In vivid interviews with Crowhurst's son and widow, we see how the pain of his loss is still terribly close to them even forty years later. By contrast, Knox-Johnston and Moitessier's widow give revealing glimpses into the majestic lure that a life on the open ocean holds for some (Moitessier, in fact, merits a documentary of his own!) Even if you've never given a second thought to the world of sailing, Deep Water is a documentary you shouldn't miss.

Photos courtesy of IFC Films