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Film review: White Squall

Acting and directing are fine, but script is slow and tired. When will Bridges get what he deserves?

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 6 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

Poor Jeff Bridges. Will he never get the starring film he deserves?

After a spirited performance in the otherwise weak "Wild Bill" late last year, and an Oscar-nominated turn in the box-office dud "Fearless" the year before, here he is again in a mediocre "true story" of a coming-of-age tragedy on the high seas.

Unfortunately, getting to the tragedy takes forever, as the bulk of this bulky film is devoted to a waterlogged version of "Dead Poets Society," along with ideas pilfered from every seagoing epic you've ever seen.

Bridges is "Skipper" Christopher Sheldon, whose appropriately named schooner, "The Albatross," is a floating prep school called the Ocean Academy.

Among the crew of the Albatross are Skipper's wife, Dr. Alice Sheldon (Caroline Goodall), and a hippie English literature instructor (John Savage), who act as the boys' teachers.

Chief among the boys is Scott Wolf ("Double Dragon," TV's "Party of Five"), essentially the central character, Chuck Gieg, who keeps a diary of his year at sea and acts as narrator of the film. Others include Balthazar Getty ("Lord of the Flies," "Mr. Holland's Opus") and Jeremy Sisto ("Clueless," "Moonlight and Valentino").

It's the autumn of 1960, and Skipper has enrolled 13 teenage boys for a high-seas adventure to the Caribbean, where they will be tutored in their formal school studies, be trained in the finer points of shipboard protocol and, of course, learn life lessons.

As you might expect from a Hollywood coming-of-age ensemble yarn, Skipper handles the boys with "tough-love," as several must overcome psychological fears. And, of course, the boys get into a drunken brawl during one night's leave, they pay for the services of a prostitute and one loses his virginity to a member of a Dutch girls school that is hosted by the crew.

After an episodic hour-plus of these various cliche-ridden adventures — the most interesting being a brush with Cuban rebels, which foreshadows the Bay of Pigs incident — the Albatross encounters a raging storm, culminating in a mysterious "white squall." As a result, lives are lost, survivors are rescued and there is a trial to determine what really happened and whether Bridges will lose his seafaring certificate.

And, of course, there is a rousing, wildly sentimental ending.

Bridges is fine as the stiff-necked captain of the ship, determined to make men of these boys ("Some of us are here for discipline, some for escape," he tells them), and he gets solid support from the rest of the cast.

And director Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Thelma & Louise") gives us a terrific storm, which will make you feel like you're in that claustrophobic ship as it's going down. (There are also some poignant moments with those who do not survive as they ponder their doom.)

But the script, by TV writer Todd Robinson (who also co-produced), is slow and tired. We've seen it all before, and the change of setting has little impact.