I’m just going to get this out of the way: Jaws is one of the best movies I have ever seen.
Right from the get-go there is a sense of immediate urgency. When a young swimmer is attacked (albeit kind of goofily), the scene is set for a situation that is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
Another example of this “about-to-hit-the-fan” kind of scene is when the mayor of the town insists on opening the beach, despite the threat of sharks. Director Steven Spielberg does an incredible job of alternating between shots of Brody looking nervous on the beach and brief cuts to various swimmers in the water. With each cut, we think “oh man, this is the one who’s going to get it!” We know that someone is going to get eaten, but the suspense is tangible. Once the shark does attack, we are still satisfied.
Speaking of the shark, a lot of the “myth” about this movie concerns now troubling it was to work with this mechanical monster. Most people agree, however, that Jaws was better for seeing less of it. By using it sparingly, the audience doesn’t get a chance to see much of its limitations.
I also appreciate that, despite a mostly male cast, nobody immediately steps into the unflappable, seen-it-all role. Everyone, from police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) to shark expert Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), is visibly affected by the gruesomeness of the swimmer’s discovered remains. Brody, especially, is one of the most believable protagonists I’ve ever come across. He’s flawed, but motivated, and struggles to do what’s right despite constant pressure from his superiors to just sweep everything under the rug. When faced with a shark problem, while everyone else is suiting up to go hunting, he is researching, trying to understand exactly what he’s dealing with. Brody is also admirable because of his devotion to his family. He is able to ground himself with his loved ones and channel his love for them into a crusade to save his community.
On either side of Brody, particularly during the third quarter of the movie are Hooper and Quint (Robert Shaw), a fisherman with a dark past. Quint is simultaneously the most powerful and the most irritating character. Half the time, Quint is singing shanties and making inconsiderate comments, and generally talking too much. The only part of the movie that I really didn’t enjoy was when Brody and Hooper meet up with Quint to go hunt the shark. Not ten minutes later, Quint redeems himself when, during a comparison of scar stories, he tells his companions about his terrifying encounter with sharks near the end of World War II. Right after pissing me off with his brashness, Quint bounces right back with this ensnaring monologue.
Also of note is John Williams’ score. Whether it’s the famous theme during shark scenes, or the uber-triumphant fanfare that accompanies the shark hunt, Williams’ music takes many of the scenes into an even better realm of cinema.
There are a ton of stories about why this movie almost didn’t happen, whether it’s mechanical difficulties from the shark, Robert Shaw’s alcoholism and IRS issues, an unfinished script, issues from shooting at sea… All of these reasons ultimately compile to give it a mythical status, one that it already deserves on its own.