Deep Water (United Kingdom, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Deep Water is a documentary, but it's also one part adventure film, one part Greek tragedy, and one part meditation on the role of the "hero" in modern society. The movie starts out with a seemingly simple premise: chronicle the first nonstop round-the-world yacht race from the late 1960s, but it ends up in deep waters indeed. By focusing almost exclusively on three of the nine participants, the movie provides a window into subjects and themes one might not normally associate with a "sports" documentary. In the end, the concept of "winning" is trivial. This is about survival, keeping one's sanity, making a grasp for dignity, and falling into a trap that only a laughing god (or devil) could appreciate.

By the 1960s, the age of exploration and great feats was drawing to a close. Virtually everything that could be conquered had been conquered, be it the Arctic, the Antarctic, or even the moon. One feat that had not yet been achieved was to circumnavigate the globe in a yacht without stopping. The race, which would take between eight to ten months, was to begin in the middle and late months of 1968 and would not reach its sad conclusion until July 1969. For Deep Water, directors Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell have elected to focus on the stories of three of the nine participants. Robin Knox-Johnston crossed the finish line and therefore holds the distinction of being the first man to go around the world in a boat by himself without stopping. Frenchman Bernard Moitessier was Knox-Johnston's fiercest rival, but he dropped out before reaching the end point so he could avoid the crowds that would be waiting. Finally, Donald Crowhurst had the strangest story of all. Beloved by the populace with a reputation inflated to mythical proportions by the papers, Crowhurst became a victim not only of his own hubris but of circumstances and the expectations of others.

Going into the film, it's entirely possible that many viewers won't know the results. This is, after all, something that occurred 40 years ago and the names involved don't have the legendary status of Armstrong, Byrd, and Shackleton. The film withholds the specifics but several things are clear early on: Knox-Johnston survived in good health (a contemporary interview is provided), something strange happened to Moitessier, and something disastrous happened to Crowhurst. The successful one, Knox-Johnston, gets the least screen time while the least successful, Crowhurst, gets about two-thirds of the movie's running length.

The film makes excellent use of archival footage filmed by the men on their boats during the course of their voyages. Crowhurst also made audio recordings and excerpts from Moitessier and Crowhurst's journals are read. These are intercut with surviving newsreel footage, still photos, and talking head interviews with survivors. The overall effect is to tell a gripping, compelling story that, in some aspects, is not unlike Touching the Void. (Two of the producers - John Smithson and Paul Trijbits - were involved in both productions.) Deep Water lacks the recreations that marked (some would argue "marred") the earlier film, but there's the same sense of narrative drive that is typically reserved for a feature, not a documentary.

Crowhurst proves to be a fascinating individual. Had he succeeded, Deep Water would have been less interesting. But he failed, and tragically so. An inexperienced yachtsman to begin with, he got himself heavily into debt to finance the expedition and ended up with a boat that was barely seaworthy. He left under a cloud of doubt and knew within weeks that he was in trouble. He was faced with a choice: give up and return to financial ruin or go on and likely kill himself. He figured out an audacious third option that might have succeeded if not for the wicked finger of fate. Crowhurst's wife and son give a blow-by-blow description of what it was like waiting for him in England. The diaries, tapes, and film show a man whose growing isolation causes him to brood and become detached from the world around him.

There's a saying that goes something like: "If heroes don't exist, we'll invent them." The name of Jessica Lynch comes to mind, but she's not the only one. The media have a long history of doing this and Crowhurst was another of their concoctions. Knowing this - that he was the people's overwhelming choice to win - put additional pressure on a man who had begun the project as a way to live out a dream. By the time he started the race on October 31, 1968, it had become a nightmare. A film crew on hand for the launch captures his worried looks and downbeat demeanor.

If Deep Water had merely been a recounting of the race, it would have been engaging material, but its attempts to explore the psyches of Crowhurst and Moitessier elevate it to a higher level. The experience of being alone and adrift for so long does profound things to both men. Neither person is the same at the end of his journey as he is at the beginning. Each has discovered what he believes to be an essential cosmic/spiritual truth and it becomes the guiding principle of his life. By detouring beyond a simple blow-by-blow description of the race to provide this insight, Osmond and Rothwell have provided us with one of the year's most impressive documentaries.

Deep Water (United Kingdom, 2006)

Director: Louise Osmond, Jerry Rothwell
Cast: Tilda Swinton (narrator)
Screenplay: Nina Kellgren
Music: Harry Escott, Molly Nyman
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2007-08-24
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1