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Film Review

All is Lost

A sailor's struggle to survive is a powerful and recurrent theme in literature and film. In films, "The Old Man and the Sea" and "Kon Tiki" are classics, and more recently, two good films, "Cast Away" (2000) and the "Life of Pi" (2012) have the same theme. While not set on the ocean, "Into the Wild" (2007) tells the story of a young man who walks into backwoods Alaska, and slowly starves to death. But can there be a more inherently hostile environment than the ocean? Even the Bible recognized the danger and terror of the sea: "They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters … (Psalm 107). The struggle of an individual to survive has always been compelling, inspiring, and often frightening. Why do some survive while others do not? Surely it is combinations of skill, persistence, resourcefulness and courage, but most of all, luck.

"All is Lost" begins with a title, "1700 miles from the Sumatra Straits", the shot of an unidentified object slowly drifting, and a voice ("Our man") reading what seems to be a farewell letter written just before death. "I'm sorry…. I tried to be true, strong, kind, and loving, but I know that I wasn't…..". Then a title: "8 days earlier" and we see our man waking up in the cabin of his sailboat to the sound of a crash and water pouring in. He goes on deck to discover that a wayward steel shipping container has collided with his boat, punching a hole through the fiberglas hull. A corner of the container is still lodged in his hull. He cannot pry the container away, so rigs a sea anchor which eventually causes the two to separate. The container floats away leaving a trail of tennis shoes. Then our man begins to assess the damage and tries to cover the hole. The water has knocked out his electrical system so he cannot radio for help and he must hand pump the water out. Other than the opening letter, there has not been a single word of dialogue. Instead we hear natural sounds: the slap of waves, the wind, the sounds of the boat, and the sounds of his activities. He finally manages to bring a battery on deck and hook it directly to his radio. He hears someone speaking in a foreign language and tries to send out a call for help. His boat, the Virginia Jean, is presumably named after his wife because our man is wearing a wedding ring. This is the first dialogue since the opening and shocks the audience into realizing that he is in serious trouble. But the radio completely fades. He climbs the mast (in a bosun's chair) to repair the connection to his antenna and sees ominous storm clouds, which soon hit the boat. The scenes of him in the cabin being tossed around are frightening and really only the beginning of his ordeal. At first it seems as if this is a one character film, but his boat, the sea, and the silence are equally important characters. Our man is a fighter who uses his considerable skills to survive, such as rigging a plastic sheet to condense and collect a few swallows of water. He is determined, but sometimes sinks into depression or exhaustion, then recovers to fight on, but he is weakening from lack of food and water. He and we know he can't hold out much longer. The last sentence in our man's farewell note was "I fought to the end". And he did.

Robert Redford has starred in at least 40 films, but this one is distinctly different and more nuanced. Here he is a man confronting his own mortality and perhaps mourning for those he will leave behind. He is totally convincing as someone who will not go down without a fight. His face is very expressive of his moods, from hope to fear to depression. Redford is still handsome, has aged gracefully (we should all look so good at 77), and is in tremendous physical condition. He did most of his own stunts, some of which seem risky. There is no question that he will get an Oscar nomination for this role. The director and writer, Jeffrey (J.C.) Chandor, has only produced one other full length film, "Margin Call" (2011), which was a well received look at Wall Street brokers as the economy crumbled. His brokers schemed and struggled to keep themselves solvent, but this film is almost its opposite in that it is a solitary individual fighting to save himself from death. "All is Lost" is a very accomplished film of great power with a story and method unlike almost any other film. His shooting style is striking in that many of the scenes show our man as if we were right next to him, an effect that Chandor intended. Its tension and power are constant, persuasive, and moving. The cinematography is gorgeous, often with almost frightening scenes of a tiny boat adrift on a vast ocean, or underwater shots of the boat seen from the depths, as fish gather. His tiny craft becomes, in a sense, a world teeming with marine life, within a vastly larger world. Chandor's atmospheric scenes are awesome, with spectacular sunsets and cloud formations. The visuals stay with you long after leaving the theater. Filming was done in Baja, Mexico, partially in a huge tank, and partially on the open ocean. Stay for the credits because an interesting note describes the sailboats used in the film The soundtrack, by Alexander Ebert, is beautiful, restrained and luminous, with much of the music by wind instruments, appropriately enough. I was enchanted by Ebert's music and intend to buy the soundtrack.

I loved "All is Lost" and think it will become a classic. Like so many great films, this really should be seen on the big screen. It's only 107 minutes long, but with every moment packed with tension and meaning. Just opened and playing widely in the Bay area, including the Kabuki and Century Centre 9 theaters.

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