'Deep Water': A Stirring Odyssey of Man Against the Sea

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2007

Stories of valor and intrepidness usually end in glory -- the battle won, the mountain conquered, the kingdom saved. But what of the would-be heroes who falter because of their moral shortcomings? And what of their emotional damage afterward, the heartbreak of their families and, in the case of the eloquently told documentary "Deep Water," the dashed expectations of all the supporters who waved their Union Jacks one late October day in 1968 for Donald Crowhurst?

They were saluting the Englishman for becoming the ninth and final sailor to join the Sunday Times' round-the-world Golden Globe Race. A formidable undertaking, the global course would take its competitors around South Africa's stormy Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian and Pacific oceans, past the curly southern tip of South America and back to England. The prize was 5,000 pounds.

Crowhurst seemed acutely out of place next to his competitors, including veterans Robin Knox-Johnston and Bernard Moitessier. A soft-spoken, slightly nerdy family man and weekend sailor with no long-distance experience, Crowhurst had designed and raised money for a trimaran -- a three-hull sailboat -- that he believed would outpace everyone. No surprise, then, that this do-it-yourself hero set sail on a wave of public acclamation. Everyone loves an underdog.

But as he waved goodbye to his wife, Clare, and their four children, the prospect of disaster seemed as threatening as the oceans ahead. Crowhurst was clearly overwhelmed; he had barely made the launch-off deadline. And he was under contract to complete the race or be forced to purchase his expensive boat.

Why watch such a doomed adventure? Because "Deep Water" tells us so much about ourselves -- how we can become enslaved by our own aspirations and the overwhelming pressures of expectation. There's a mythical underpinning at play, too, as the movie amounts to a postmodern spin on two great stories: the Odyssey, in which a patriarch leaves his family for distant glory but risks losing it in the process; and the tale of Icarus, in which his father, Daedalus, a visionary-scientist, builds wings of wax and feathers, only to see his son fly too close to the sun.

As directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell, the movie breezes along at a highly watchable clip, thanks to fluid, affecting intercutting of archival, black-and-white footage and present-day interviews.

Here's Clare Crowhurst in the present, reliving her misgivings about her husband's trip. As the older Clare talks to the camera, we watch her 1968 counterpart in dreamlike black and white, lost, unsure, afraid to speak up. The effect is heartbreaking. There are similarly moving, then-and-now moments, as Donald's grown son Simon, Knox-Johnston and Moitessier's wife, Fran?oise Moitessier de Cazalet, look back at their roles in the event. Their collective regrets -- in counterpoint with gorgeous footage of seagoing, past and contemporary -- reach out powerfully from the screen.

Most stirring of all is Donald Crowhurst, the center of this existential character mystery (though what happens to him is etched in history, the film is best experienced without knowing the details of what ultimately occurs). There he is, on the day of his launch, head tilted down, hair tousled by sea winds, as a BBC interviewer asks him, point-blank, about his chances of success. His words are filled with thoughtful, measured confidence, but his rapidly flickering eyelids -- windows of the soul -- tell a different story. The filmmakers momentarily slow those fluttery movements, and though it almost cores the soul to watch, we are compelled to follow him on this voyage, wherever it takes him and us.

Deep Water (93 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated PG for mild profanity and adult themes.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company