‘Jaws’ Hits Very Close to Home During COVID

You're gonna need a bigger lockdown.

“If we make an effort today, we might be able to save August.”

It strikes me, watching Jaws on a blazing hot Valley afternoon in the summer of 2021, that if they had simply closed the beaches of Amity Island and told nearby towns to do the same thing, the shark would have gone back to eating porpoises or dolphins or whatever. It wouldn’t have been a very interesting movie, but the body count would have been much lower.

I watched Jaws for the first time this week for today’s episode of You Love to See It. It’s a movie we all know even if we’ve never seen it— we know the iconic John Williams theme, we know the famous lines, we know that it’s about hunting a big scary shark that eats people.

We dove (pun intended) into the movie in the episode, talking about the performances, its ‘dudes rock’-itude, the tonal shifts, and what a good flick it is. But what struck me hardest about Jaws is how true it feels to this moment of American history.

On June 15th, at the same place where my parents once warned me “the shark from Jaws is going to jump out at us, but don’t worry. It’s not a real shark,” California Governor Gavin Newsom quipped with Optimus Prime and the Minions as he announced the end of COVID restrictions for the state of California.

As of yesterday, California’s daily average of COVID cases were up 25% compared to a year ago, even with 50% of the population vaccinated. It’s being recommended that we all start wearing masks indoors, regardless of our vaccination status.

Like the events of Jaws, this could have all been avoided if we had just stayed closed. And just like in Jaws, we didn’t.

It’s true that Jaws is an exciting thriller about hunting a shark, but we’re an hour in before that starts happening. The first half of the movie is about trying to convince a small New England tourist town being terrorized by shark attacks that there is in fact a shark attack problem.

Like another Spielberg’s blockbuster about cold blooded creatures killing people, the real horror of Jaws isn’t the big beasts, it’s the people in charge and their arrogant refusal to admit that anything has gone wrong, even in the face of things very obviously going terribly, terribly wrong. It’s their willingness to believe the first person to tell them that the problem has gone away. The problem itself isn’t nearly as scary as the refusal to address it.

Don’t get me wrong— the shark is scary! The tension is scary! Jaws is thrilling and entertaining to this day. But my lingering feeling of unease is completely unrelated to marine animals. Early in the film, there is a silent question asked by its characters. What’s a heavier cost: potential loss of life or potential loss of revenue from tourism?

The scariest thing about Jaws is that I know how that question gets answered, and that it’s the same answer every time.