The film All Is Lost has been released to unanimously raving reviews. Critics are greatly satisfied with both the film itself and Mr. Redford’s performance, which is wonderful since he is the one and only actor in it. A seasoned gentleman leisurely crossing the Indian Ocean all by himself on an elegant sailboat faces a number of contretemps. Things go from bad to worse until he’s forced to abandon ship and board the lifeboat. More tribulations await him there.
It’s a good man-versus-the-elements yarn, and I found myself rooting for the mariner (we never get to know his name) because, as a fellow human being, I certainly wouldn’t like to be in his predicament. Having said that, my rooting for the mariner wasn’t nearly as wholehearted as it should have been, because a simple but essential detail kept nagging at me.
Years ago, while doing research for a novel of mine, Leeward & Windward, I studied a book by Don Biggs entitled Survival Afloat – How to Prevent Disasters on the Water – Or Survive if One Occurs, copyrighted in 1976 and published presumably then (there is no release date in my copy). In it I learnt about a castaway’s greatest friend—the EPIRB.
An EPIRB is an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. A relative novelty back in the 1970s, EPIRBs have become standard equipment for open-water sailing, not only for commercial and private vessels, but for their lifeboats, too. On the latter, they are normally activated automatically upon immersion. Since 1982, EPIRBs have been instrumental in the rescue of over 28,000 people in more than 7,000 distress situations.
Now, in All Is Lost we are shown a sailboat that seems fully accessorized; moreover, the mariner is (presumably) a well-off yachtsman who, by default, would be up to standard in his gear. Yet evidently neither his sailboat nor his lifeboat has en EPIRB, which represents, in one word, an impossibility.
So the question is, Is this a giant oversight or a deliberate omission on the side of the filmmakers? If it were an omission, it would be an insult to our intelligence; if it were an oversight, it would be an insult to theirs.
Mainstream critics didn’t notice this at all, and one wonders—why? All Is Lost is a film in which nautical details are virtually co-protagonists. We are shown the mariner trying to be resourceful and to come up with all sorts of expedients so as to face the various emergencies. Mainstream critics should have wondered if such details were spot on, or not. How? Even without reading handbooks such as Survival Afloat, they could have consulted nautically-themed websites and see what actual sailors had to say.
Instead they opted for singing the praises of the film and of Mr. Redford’s acting. They even made parallels with the writings of Melville, Conrad and Jack London, and one wonders if it’s been a long time since they’ve read their books or if they’ve read them at all. Mercifully I haven’t come across any reference to the Odyssey, the mother of all seafaring adventures, or to the Navigatio Brendani, the voyage of Saint Brendan, memorably reenacted by Tim Severin. The fact is, masterpieces about the sea have been written for centuries; it’s difficult to say something new, and it certainly doesn’t help if the work suffers from a more than major oversight or omission that mines its verisimilitude. In comparison Life of Pi, a book previously thought of as unfilmable, is a cinematic marvel.
As for the acting, I’d like to quote Tom Hanks. On October 7, as a guest on The Late Show with David Letterman, he was asked if the Somalis featured in Captain Philips were actors before they left their homeland. His reply: “No, but you know, look, Dave, show business has like a racket element to it… as long as you are not self-conscious about a camera looking at you and the fact that you are pretending to be somebody else, you can figure out the marks and the lights relatively quickly.” Indeed the performance of such newcomers as pirates was impressive.
So, the question is, Who’s doing the thinking on both fronts? What were the filmmakers thinking when they omitted not one but two EPIRBs from the plot? Were they just ignorant and didn’t find it necessary to hire a marine consultant—for a film in which nautical details are so vital? Or was the omission deliberate, and they were speculating on the viewers’ ignorance, not to mention the critics’? As for the mainstream critics, when dealing with a film that so heavily relies on nautical details, shouldn’t have they wondered whether they were accurate?
I suppose sometimes the intelligentsia needs someone to lionize. Mr. Redford, at 77 and the only actor in the film, was an ideal candidate. Unfortunately the filmmakers didn’t realize that it’s very improbable that such a mariner would have made it as far the Indian Ocean knowing so little about navigation and more in general about seamanship. Some of his reactions in emergency situations border on involuntary comedy. And then there is another factor: motivation, or lack thereof.
Odysseus had to return to Ithaca; Saint Brendan wanted to know what was on the other side of the ocean; Billy Bud was “impressed” into service; Humphrey van Weyden was rescued by the Sea-Wolf after the ferry he was on sank; in Conrad’s novels the sea is perceived as a metaphysical inexorability; All Is Lost’s leisurely yachtsman, on the other hand, does not need to be crossing the Indian Ocean solo. He is a dilettante asking for trouble and, when trouble punctually arrives, for our empathy.
We are human, and empathizing comes naturally. But I for one would have empathized a lot more if the film had been verisimilar. Its central oversight—or omission—mines it at its core.
The Spanish explorer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca wrote in his book Naufragios (“Shipwrecks”): Y tanto puede la necesidad que nos hizo aventurar a ir de esta manera y meternos en una mar tan trabajosa y sin tener noticia de la arte del marear. (“And being so strong, necessity pushed us into this manner of adventure and plunged us into such a toilsome sea, in total ignorance of the art of seamanship.”) Apart from necessity, which our mariner totally lacks, the rest of the quotation seems to apply, and to his creators, too.