Today, as summer sets in, four and a half decades later, we find ourselves facing similar tensions to the ones that unfolded on screen back then. Now, our shark is a virus — and as we grapple with how to keep citizens safe while reopening our public spaces, the film can offer some important lessons.
The pressure to keep the beaches open, come what may, is not unlike today’s pressure to reopen the economy as soon as possible. But we should take note of what happened in the movie: keeping the beach open turned out to be a disaster.
Predictably, as people keep swimming, the shark continues to kill. The audience can see it coming even if some of the characters cannot. The town gradually learns that it is not possible to carry on with business-as-usual while the danger exists in the water. Brody, along with a shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) and a shark expert named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), understands what lurks in the water. Quint is willing to hunt the shark, but only for a steep price.
But they hadn’t caught Jaws. Hooper knows this and tells the mayor, explaining that he had found a tooth from the real shark culprit that was so massive it couldn’t be the one the fishermen caught. But the mayor doesn’t believe him — and it’s only after another attack that kills a young boy in front of the packed beach that the mayor agrees to hire Quint to catch and kill the shark.
Brody, Quint and Hooper are on the frontlines, setting out to take down the shark despite the risks to themselves. When Brody finally sees its massive head break the surface of the water while they sit in their boat, he famously says to Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
With a terrifying soundtrack that would fit the mood of today, signaling a danger that lurks all around, the rest of the film revolves around the hunt. The film moves forward with a series of near-fatal encounters — Quint ultimately becoming one of the victims — until they finally figure out a way to kill Jaws.
Today, too, we are on a mission to thwart an organism that can kills us. Our intrepid “shark hunters” are health care workers and scientists, as well as the responsible governors who have been warning about the gravity of the pandemic. These heroic characters want to reopen society in ways that will guarantee the safety of consumers and workers, while creating confidence for all Americans to reenter public spaces — even if some risks remain.
He ignores the fact that, like a hungry shark, Covid-19 is a real danger that lurks all around us.
Ultimately, Jaws delivers a basic, and hard to dispute, message: that in order to make people feel safe to go into the water you need to defeat the shark.
The good news is that we can defeat our own viral “shark.” It will take time and patience, and require massive federal investments into vaccine development, economic stimulus, health care institutions and insurance, as well as in the well-being of all vital civic institutions that are threatened by the fallout of our horror. But we can and will make it safe for citizens to one day return to normal.
We enter the summer season tired and worn down but having made progress over the past months in flattening the curve of contagion, slowly starting the process of recovery — for now — as we await a vaccine. To continue this trend, we need to heed the warnings of those who have been leading the hunt and make sure our invisible shark is truly defeated before we send people back into the water.