The 1997 book and 2000 film A Perfect Storm coined a new phrase for the modern lexicon. In the book, meteorologist Bob Case describes a combination of weather-related phenomenon that creates a catastrophic "perfect storm," and since then writers frequently apply the term to other natural, political or personal disasters.
In the gripping documentary Deep Water, circumstance creates a similarly calamitous, no-win situation for a lone sailor competing in a 1968 'round-the-globe yacht race. Deep Water filmmakers Louise Ormond and Jerry Rothwell add a new element to the "perfect storm" calculus, however: "the delicate mechanism of the mind," which can be every bit as tempestuous.
Deep Water primarily focuses on Donald Crowhurst, whom the press dubbed "the mystery man" in the "Sunday Times Golden Globe Race." A cash-strapped English businessman and amateur sailor, Crowhurst joined the competition against more experienced sailors, only to realize, after setting off, that his experimental trimaran would never withstand the turbulent conditions of the extreme Southern hemisphere.
Ormond and Rothwell create enormous suspense over the race's outcome while conveying the risks of the endeavor. Deep Water alternates between black-and-white archival footage, interviews with Crowhurst's family, friends and rival racers, and even snippets of animation to convey the tensions at home and Crowhurst's fragile mental state at sea. Compared with the eloquent diaries and lush photography from French competitor Bernard Moitessier, Crowhurst's own terse audiotapes and dreary-looking, faded 16 mm footage hint at the Englishman's deterioration.
Crowhurst's predicament partly serves as a metaphor for capitalism, with his sponsor and press agent serving as a pair of almost Dickensian villains. Thanks to an onerous contract with his backer, Crowhurst would have to purchase the expensive ship if he failed to race or dropped out too early. Facing either death or destitution, Crowhurst makes increasingly disastrous decisions.
Despite recounting a story almost four decades old, Deep Water doesn't telegraph the unimaginable turns of the race's final weeks, making the twists all the more shocking. Deep Water joins Touching the Void and Grizzly Man as another superb documentary that details the frailty of both the human mind and body when measured against the forces of nature. Donald Crowhurst ends up resembling a character from a Greek tragedy, unable to sail faster than his own inevitable fate.
Deep Water, 4 stars. Directed by Louise Ormond and Jerry Rothwell. Rated PG. Opens Fri., Sept. 28. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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