AFI Top 100: Jaws

In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Jaws (1975), #56 on the list.

No one could have guessed that Jaws would take on a whole new relevance in 2020, but the parallels are almost too obvious. July 4th is approaching, and in the past few months we’ve seen health experts and government officials arguing over what’s best for the public in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Revisiting the seminal blockbuster classic in our current climate is eerie, because the profit-driven mayor, overeager to reopen commerce—even at the cost of human lives—may have once seemed cartoonishly callous, but now the most unbelievable aspect to his character is his heel-turn, becoming suddenly grief stricken and displaying a sense of humanity once he sees the consequences of his decision.

Setting aside the modern significance, the film has garnered praise at the time of release and in the 45 years since—with special attention given to Spielberg’s direction, Williams’s score, Shaw’s performance, and the visual effects—but the distinct structure is rarely given its due. The first half follows Chief Brody’s plight to protect the town, with the fast-paced plot punctuated by set pieces which amplify the tension. The second half abandons land entirely, turning into a three-hander between Brody and his two recruits as they set out to find and kill the colossal great white shark. Their characters are each individually fascinating—especially Quint, the eccentric and battle-worn shark hunter—and the dynamic between the three is enough to carry the rest of the film, but it culminates in a thrilling set piece that’s genuinely pulse pounding, even 45 years later.

Does It Belong on the List?

Of course. Not only is it the first summer blockbuster, it’s one of the best.

AFI Top 100

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