Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Catch and Release

Film: The Old Man and the Sea
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I should probably start off talking about The Old Man and the Sea by saying that I am not a fan of the writing of Ernest Hemingway in general. I’m happy to say that a number of his short stories are fantastic and worth reading, but I’ve never liked his novels. A large part of this for me is that Hemingway couldn’t write a woman character to save his life an anything longer than a couple of pages. That’s not an issue with this film, since virtually the entire film is Spencer Tracy sitting by himself in a boat. This film has other problems, though, which we’ll get to soon enough.

Know going into this that this will likely be a pretty short review. There’s not a lot here to write about in terms of plot or interaction between characters. Aside from the opening few scenes and the very end, this really is literally what I said above. Santiago (Spencer Tracy) is an old fisherman in Cuba whose best days are long gone. When the movie begins, Santiago has not caught a real sizable fish for nearly three months. The boy (Felipe Pazos) who worked as his apprentice has been sent to another boat by his parents. Now working for a “lucky” boat, the boy still looks after Santiago, buying him food and sardines to use as bait.

Of course, on the 85th day of his no-fish drought, Santiago hooks a whopper. The fish pulls him out to sea and fights him for three days. Once he defeats the fish, Santiago needs to get back to Cuba and protect his catch against a school of marauding sharks who see a giant marlin tied to a boat as a snack that won’t fight back. Since this is Hemingway, nothing good is going to happen.

I said above that there are some real issues with this film beyond the fact that it’s based on one of the most famous stories by an author that I genuinely don’t like. There are, in fact, three significant problems with The Old Man and the Sea. The first is that it is amazingly obvious that with the exception of a couple of scenes, it could not be more obvious that this was filmed in a very large tank of water. In fact, there are a number of places where we can quite literally see that the “horizon” is simply the edge of the tank. At other times, it is obvious that Spencer Tracy is being superimposed over the background. Sure, these are technical details, but when they’re all you’ve got to look at, it looks even more fake. There are plenty of moments where we get some obvious stock footage of birds, fish, ocean creatures, and whatever else Santiago sees or thinks about.

Second is the dialogue. Because there is only a man in a boat for a good hour or more of the short running time, there are only two types of spoken word. The first is Santiago talking to himself or the fish that he has caught. It’s a long monologue about fish, baseball, stars, boats, and whatever else flits into the old man’s head. The other type of speech we get is voiceover narration, also performed by Spencer Tracy. So, except in moments where he is actively fighting the captured marlin or something similar, we either get Spencer Tracy talking to himself or talking directly to us. Does this get old? Yeah, it’s old before the film hits the 40 minute mark. More, that voiceover is essentially Hemingway’s story.

Last, and most significantly, this film is duller than dishwater. I don’t fall asleep while watching a movie that often, but it was a constant struggle to stay awake through this. It is, after all, little more than a fishing show that goes for close to 90 minutes. It’s simply not compelling or interesting.

It’s a fine performance by Spencer Tracy, but that’s all there is here. If it weren’t for Tracy, there’d be nothing here to watch.

This is clearly and obviously a one-and-done film. I was ready for it to be over when there were still 25 minutes left to go.

Why to watch The Old Man and the Sea: If you like Hemingway’s prose, there’s plenty of it here for you.
Why not to watch: It would be difficult to make this duller.


  1. Found a much more enjoyable, and nicely animated, version of the story here. It clocks in at only twenty or so minutes. The kid who does the voice acting for the boy is stiff in his line readings, but the beauty of the images makes up for any awkwardness.

    1. Twenty minutes seems like the right length for this. Eighty-seven minutes is about an hour too much.