How Jaws 2 Addresses The Vietnam War

This isn’t a contrary piece arguing in favour of Jaws 2 being anywhere near comparable to Steven Spielberg’s original blockbuster. It’s quite in vogue for certain publications to float such edgelord opinions. These articles make for juicy clickbait, but often serve little purpose beyond that.

No, Jeannot Szwarc’s obligatory 1978 sequel to the monster smash is not an unsung masterpiece awaiting rediscovery. But it is perhaps too quickly thrown in with Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge as a stain on the first movie’s reputation.

First of all, Jaws is a title so resilient that it doesn’t suffer the existence of its sequels in the least. More often than not the subsequent films are simply forgotten about entirely. Secondly, there is merit to Szwarc’s film; enough to get me thinking, enough to get me writing…

The back of the bluray box tries its hardest to muster excitement for the film, but even here the copy suggests a bit of a struggle, ultimately lending the film the dubious moniker “worthy sequel”. This editorial blink fits the picture. Szwarc’s direction is workmanlike. Saddled with the unenviable task of following Spielberg, he makes few attempts to match what’s gone before. His filming is sturdy, showing little in the way of verve. He gets his coverage, he shows us the story, and he relies on his actors and a script which succeeds when it focuses on a man, instead of a shark.

Roy Scheider reprises the role of Amity Island’s police chief Brody. It’s four years since the events of the first film, and the summer season is at its peak once again. Disparate discoveries off shore and along the coast suggest to Brody that another aquatic menace is making a meal of the present batch of holidaymakers, but bad news is never popular, and he becomes frustrated that the mayor (Murray Hamilton) refuses to take him seriously, yet again (who re-elected this asshole?).

Indeed, Brody’s incredulity makes up pretty much all of the first hour of the movie, as Jaws 2 shapes itself as a sympathetic case study in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Brody’s eagerness to draw panicked conclusions are disregarded as symptoms of his past experiences. In a silent pact, it seems, his adult peers (including his wife) doubt his ability to rationally assess these situations. Though nothing is said explicitly, Jaws 2 paints a damning portrait of unspoken prejudice against mental illness.

And Brody sympathises with them. He himself isn’t sure if what he’s seeing and thinking adds up. He has a sage man’s level of doubt and self-awareness, comparable to, say, Michael Shannon in the excellent Take Shelter. Still, when panic grips him, he acts irrationally. Confusing a school of blue fish for a shark, he causes a scene on the beach and even unloads his weapon in close proximity to a child. Such recklessness costs him his job, and one is left to wonder whether this might’ve been preventable had his friends and family reacted differently earlier in the film. Brody’s resigned reaction to getting fired is telling, also. He doesn’t blame them for letting him go. The false alarm confirmed his own fears… Maybe he is prejudicing himself?

Of course, there does turn out to be a shark, and the second hour of the film preoccupies itself with this threat more squarely, providing thrills by turns fun, silly and electrifying. But, for a while, Jaws 2 works as a reflection and musing on an infliction effecting many American men in the country’s post-Vietnam era.

Much like the post-war generation that preceded them, a generation of young men came back from intense and alien foreign terrains scarred by their experiences. Expected to look and act the part of regular civilians, these men found themselves burdened with emotional baggage, flashbacks and physically manifesting disorders that were often deemed culturally unacceptable. Too easily veterans found themselves labelled as kooks or crackpots because of their PTSD. This film is a reflection of that ostracising.

In 1978, American cinema was only just starting to reflect on the war in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter would land the same year, with Apocalypse Now to follow in 1979. These features were all in production in roughly the same period of time, and as usual, the arts directly and indirectly reflected the collective cultural processing taking place.

Scheider’s performance in Jaws 2 is well judged. Granted, there are moments of mania catalysed by emotional duress, but more commonly he appears quietly troubled by his own turn of mind; his memories of a giant murderous shark recurring with the steady persistence of waves lapping at the shore. This internal struggle can be read in his eyes, without Scheider resorting to pantomime theatrics.

The film’s final reel is played as a kind of face-your-fears act of defiance and – ultimately – triumph, even if the grim reality is that encountering a second monster shark and looking once more into the jaws of death probably did little to calm his troubled soul. Jaws 2 is a lament for past traumas and the sorry truth that in order to face our demons, we all need to have been through the mill somewhat in the first place.

Shit happens, and then more shit happens.

Enjoy your summer.

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