COMMENTARY: You be the judge on “All is Lost”

Posted on Written by Michael Sciulla
Michael Sciulla

In a year in which it seemed that Republicans and Democrats in our nation’s capital could never agree on much of anything, let’s add cinema-going sailors to the list of those who see the world in black-and-white terms.

Film critics hailed “All is Lost,” about an old man and the sea, starring 77-year-old Robert Redford, when it debuted two months ago. Time magazine called it the “capstone” to his storied acting career.

In short, “All is Lost” is a tale about a lone sailor and his fight for survival when his sailboat gets harpooned in the Indian Ocean by a wayward shipping container. But, there’s no sex, no murders and no jackpot or contest to win. At 106 minutes in length, it consists of just one actor who utters but one word throughout the entire film (other than a brief voiceover as the film begins). Clearly, “All is Lost” is not everyone’s cup of tea.

That said, film critics have been exuberant in their praise, with Redford garnering a Best Actor Golden Globe nomination and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor. The critics at Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an impressive 94 percent rating.

Redford’s solo performance should have delighted audiences and been embraced by a boating industry eager to hop on board and demonstrate that boating can deliver to mass audiences an experience that few other forms of thrill-seeking and life-affirming activity can match.

With this kind of acclaim, imagine the worldwide exposure that boating would garner if “All is Lost” won an Oscar for Best Picture or Redford won for Best Actor. Talk about a shot in the arm for an industry that could use a little buzz!

Redford’s performance, however, was overlooked by the Screen Actors Guild, whose nominations are generally considered a harbinger for Oscar success. Although Redford has been a major motion picture star since the 1960s, his only earned Oscar to date was a Best Director for “Ordinary People” in 1981. No Oscar for such blockbusters as “The Sting,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Quiz Show,” “The Horse Whisperer,” “A River Runs Through It,” “All the President’s Men” or my personal favorite, “Three Days of the Condor.”

Adding to this snub, the film and Redford’s performance have been panned by a variety of bluewater sailors, boating writers and sailing purists for a variety of technical shortcomings and oversights. (Soundings took a critical look at the movie in its February issue.)

That the film has Redford offshore without an EPIRB is a complaint voiced by many. Of course, it would have been a very short film if all Redford had to do was activate his EPIRB and wait for a rescue.

Be that as it may, perhaps the most comprehensive criticism comes from Sail magazine executive editor Charles Doane, who authors a blog at wavetrain.net that conveniently links to the movie’s trailer. He excoriates the film in a persuasive piece titled “All is Lost: What An Annoying Movie.” His 10 reasons for panning the film are worth noting if you plan to see it.

“Most of the many errors made in the film did not improve the plot or make the film any more dramatic. They all seem to be errors made out of sheer laziness. The film probably could have been made more dramatic if the filmmakers had done more research and if an experienced ocean sailor helped create the story,” Doane argues.

His sentiments are echoed by Bob Duthie, a sailor and entrepreneur with a degree in engineering physics, who says, “Overall I would say it’s very frustrating for experienced boaters to watch. Redford makes so many obvious mistakes it’s hard to watch the movie at times, and besides, the credits show it cost the lives of three 39-foot sailboats to make the film.”

And professional cinematographer Ed Kukla of Starboard Films, who specializes in video production for the marine industry, says, “There’s creative license, and then there’s this. Who goes offshore with only a VHF”?

All true, I suspect, especially if you’re making a documentary for The Science Channel, boning up for a Chapman’s quiz or planning for an Oscar in the Best Short Film category.

But although the film’s detractors certainly have a point to press about a storyline in which a solo sailor goes offshore ill-prepared, Peabody Award-winning film producer and sailor Stephen Reverand argues: “Good art transcends the technical details of the story and delivers a larger theme.”

“Robert Redford gives a stunning performance and the film is almost Hemingwayesque in its dramatic display of a sailor’s mortality and how he comes to grips with his aging body all alone at sea with little more than his wits and will to survive,” he says.

Reverand, who recently single-handed his 1981 Tartan 42 by Sparkman & Stephens from Annapolis to south Florida, says “All is Lost” is in the same league as “The Old Man and the Sea,” starring Spencer Tracy, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in 1959, and Tom Hanks, who was also nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Cast Away” in 2001.

No stranger to making films about survival at sea, Reverand produced 17 episodes of “The Deadliest Catch” for the Discovery Channel, as well as “Kingdom of the Blue Whale” for the National Geographic Channel. He was awarded a Peabody in 2005 for “Black Sky: The Race for Space,” which chronicled aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan’s three-year pursuit of private space travel.

“It’s nice to see something like this come out of Hollywood,” adds Reverand, who expects to get some epoxy and fiberglass repair cloth to keep aboard his boat before venturing offshore.

Kelly Flory, of the Martin Flory Group, also thinks “All is Lost” is a great film and wasn’t put off by the lack of dialogue. “The purposeful absence of dialogue draws you into the story and connects you to Redford’s character.” That said, “it isn’t an ambassador for sailing, as no one leaves the theater thinking this looks like fun.”

Whether “All is Lost” will encourage viewers to go sailing is open to debate. That said, freelance writer and crime novelist Brian Hartz notes, “There are far too few major motion pictures about sailing, so I was thrilled just to learn of this movie’s existence. And no, it is not a documentary about how to survive at sea. Keep that in mind and you will enjoy it immensely. We are lucky a film like this even got made in the first place.”

Lucky, yes, because, above all, Hollywood is a business. Although “All is Lost” has certainly generated some buzz and controversy within the boating community, it has been an absolute dud at the box office, pulling in a measly $5.8 million over a two-month run. Compare that to “Captain Phillips, which is also about survival at sea, but which has plenty of action, gunplay and the U.S. military coming to the rescue. It was released the same week in October and has generated $105 million at the box office, with more to come.

Whether “All is Lost”’s dismal financial fortunes and the lack of its embrace by both the boating community and the marine industry spooks film producers from featuring recreational boats and boaters in the future remains to be seen. In the meantime, those of you more into couch potatoing than offshore sailing can decide for yourself in the comfort of your own home when the DVD is released on Feb. 11, or perhaps sooner on streaming video.

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of both Boating Writers International and Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000.

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Comments

One comment on “COMMENTARY: You be the judge on “All is Lost”

  1. Wilson Wright

    Nice to catch up with Mike Sciulla…Hadn’t seen his name on the Boat/US site for some time and wondered if he had completely retired…or was doing something else…glad to know…

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