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Deep Water

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Amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst is the focus of Deep Water (Pathe)

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I apologize for not getting to Deep Water (opening Sept. 7 at Landmark's Ken Cinema ) sooner. Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell's riveting documentary chronicles a 1968 sailing race around the world with particular focus on amateur British yachtsman Donald Crowhurst.

What makes this documentary so remarkable is the material the filmmakers had to work with. First of all, because the sail around the globe was a big news event, there is an amazing amount of news footage and interviews from the era. But more startling are the original tape recordings and 16mm films made by the solitary competitors as they spent more than ten months alone trying to sail around the globe. This footage allows the filmmakers to make an intensely intimate portrait of both Crowhurst and the French sailor Bernard Moitessier. Both men, but in very different ways, provide for compelling content.

Moitessier is given the supporting role in the film as his journey leads him to soul searching and self-discovery. But Crowhurst takes center stage as the more troubled and complex character. Crowhurst is presented to us as something of a dreamer. He never found much success in life but felt he was capable of grand things. So when this challenge to sail the globe came up, he pursued it even though he had no real sailing skills. He was a good talker so he eventually convinced backers to fund his enterprise. He could be charming on camera and quickly won over the media and the public to become the dark horse candidate in the race. But once Crowhurst went to sea, his lack of sailing skills became painfully evident. He faced delays, mishaps and embarrassment before finally heading out to sea and away from the media's close scrutiny.

Once at sea, Crowhurst came to the bitter realization that he was making such poor time that he would be humiliated. Not only that but the contract he signed with his finacial backers stated that he had to finish or lose everything. So Crowhurst came up with a bold scam: break radio contact; hang off the coast of Argentina and just wait for his competitors to make their way around Cape Horn and New Zealand. Then he could slyly join them on the home stretch as though he had traveled the same course as them. Brilliant. Except for the fact that radio silence also meant he couldn't contact anyone for help when he was in distress. Plus, the complete isolation began to take a mental toll. The 16mm film he shot, the audio tape he recorded and the journals he kept serve up a drama as intense and spellbinding as any Hollywood film. You witness the mental deterioration of someone right before your eyes.

Osmond and Rothwell's film also includes recent interviews with people such as Crowhurst's wife and son. Moitessier's wife Francoise also provides commentary about the very different experiences of her husband. But both wives reveal the irresistible allure the sea can hold for people such as their husbands. The mix of talking heads and archival footage as well as the mix of perspectives from both the present and the past turn Deep Water into a mesmerizing documentary.

Deep Water (rated PG for thematic elements, mild language and incidental smoking) also boasts a strong narration by Tilda Swinton who weaves the story together like a tense psychological drama. Even if you don't like sailing or the open sea, give this finely crafted documentary a try. To use a sailing term I picked up from The Philadelphia Story -- she's yar.

There was also a book on this subject, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst .

Companion viewing: The Dove, Touching the Void, Open Water

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