‘Jaws’ at 45: Undercurrents of Economic Anxiety Still Threaten to Rip Us Apart

This summer, Jaws is 45 years old; yet the immediate visceral fear you feel when that famous musical motif first kicks in has hardly aged out of existence. In Steven Spielberg’s 1975 summer thriller, based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel, a menacingly massive great white shark lurks under the calm surface of the ocean, ready to strike its unassuming victims. As it tears into swimmers off the coast of the small Amity Island, the shark exposes not only the danger of the waters, but also the precarity of the island community that’s left torn up by the tragedy.

Nobody on Amity Island manages to decisively respond to the shark. When news of the attack breaks, police chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider) has the immediate impulse to close down the beaches until the threat can be contained — an unprecedented act in a sea community that depends on summer tourism. When Brody asks where the “beach closed” signs are, nobody knows because they’ve never used them. Meanwhile, Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) doesn’t seem troubled at all; rather, he is radically opposed to taking any action. What he fears the most is creating a panic on the Fourth of July that would spell the loss of tourism money: “Amity is a summer town. We need summer dollars.” The fear is that if people cannot swim at Amity’s beaches, they will choose to spend their summer elsewhere. However, Brody, as a transplant to the island, simply cannot understand their economic and emotional dependence on the beaches — at one point, his friends tell his wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary), “You’re not born here, you’re not an islander.” In the insular beachside community set within a competitive tourism industry, it is eat or be eaten.

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Universal Pictures

The mayor quickly becomes Brody’s chief (human) foe as he dismisses all safety concerns, assuring reporters that “the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time.” His willful ignorance and slimy car-salesman persona make him the representation of Amity’s economic and political corruption, prioritizing profit motives over concerns for the well-being of the public.

Though the precautionary measures Brody calls for are urgently needed to prevent more deaths, it can be hard to completely put Vaughn at fault for bowing to community pressure. Every Amity citizen at the town hall meeting (except for shark hunter Quint) is quite vocal about how much they don’t want the beaches closed. The literal threat of the shark is paralleled by a metaphor of going underwater or drowning in debt. It’s hard for them to care about the potential risk the shark poses to their lives when the closed beaches present a more pressing danger to their livelihoods. When a tiger shark is caught, giving the mayor something to blame the attacks on, he claims “we can start breathing again.” Once more, being quick to dismiss Brody’s concerns, he will only be convinced that the true killer shark remains on the prowl by the loss of another life.

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Universal Pictures

“We depend on the summer for our very lives.”

Jaws feels more relevant than ever in today’s landscape, dealing with anxieties about weighing risk in favor of economic concerns and confronting politicians who seem incompetent in times of crisis. Mayor Vaughn is an obvious target for ire, but even Brody is held accountable for his silence, standing by as the beaches remained open. At one point, the mother of a boy killed by the shark confronts Brody with a searing indictment of his inaction: “You knew there was a shark out there, but you let people go swimming anyway.” It’s only at this point that it becomes clear that the shark must be eliminated — no matter the cost.

When Brody assembles his team of marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) to help him hunt the beast, they are united in their devoted pursuit of the shark — yet inevitably, class differences come bubbling up. The three men represent three social strata: Brody is a middle-class everyman, Hooper is a member of the highly educated elite, and Quint is a working man who sees the shark hunt as another job, rather than viewing it as an adventure or moral obligation. While hunting the shark, Brody observes Hooper’s extensive marine tracking equipment and wonders who paid for it — Hooper reveals he mostly paid for it himself. Incredulous, Brody asks “You rich?” to which Hooper meagerly responds with a shrug. Quint is willing to endanger his life to help capture the shark, but only if he is adequately paid, and only if they go out on his vessel where he is the captain. Though Hooper occasionally grows frustrated with Quint and bemoans “I don’t need this working-class hero crap,” Quint’s expertise proves essential to achieving success on their mission.

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Universal Pictures

Just as the class differences seem to be giving way as the three men bond on the boat, singing sea shanties with one another, something else breaks too: a shaft busts and the boat begins to fill with water. They are forced to pump water out of their boat to keep them afloat as they continue on their blistering chase. In the climactic confrontation with the great white, it is Quint, the person whose livelihood was most precarious and dependent on the hunt, that gets swallowed up by its all-consuming jaws. The shark seems to prey on inequality, ravaging the working class: Quint is devoured and his boat capsizes, his body and property unable to withstand the sheer force of the attack.

If Quint had been hired from the outset by the mayor to do the job, perhaps his demise, as well as some of the other attacks, could have been avoided. Instead, the “working class hero” is pulled underwater and sacrificed by the narrative so that Brody can emerge as Amity’s saving grace. When Brody finally kills the shark by exploding a pressurized tank, it sinks in a bloody cloud as he remains perched on the crow’s nest of the boat. He hardly manages to stay above the water, and the safety and economic security of Amity is restored. As they swim towards shore, Brody tells Hooper “I used to hate the water.” “I can’t imagine why,” Hooper replies, but saying that seems easy enough after there is no longer a threat of going under.

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Universal Pictures

Even decades after its blockbuster release, Jaws is still horrifying, as well as terrifyingly prescient about the current public health and safety crisis. These economic and political concerns rise to the surface upon re-watching: not only do these characters need a bigger boat to hunt down their often unseen enemy, they need more accountability from the political and economic elite. Being too ready to accept cheap or easy solutions, rush to reopen, or dismiss contrary information has potentially fatal consequences; even the public figures who are supposedly advocating for financial recovery can end up endangering the lives of those who are already the most vulnerable.

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