'Deep Water' is see-worthy fare

The riveting adventure documentary about a catastrophic sailing race around the world is one of the year's best releases.

"Deep Water," and the impressions it leaves, can't be shaken for hours, even days, after it's viewed.

Louise Osmond's and Jerry Rothwell's intensely felt documentary account of the bizarre adventure of sailboat racer Donald Crowhurst is no less than the film equivalent of a great Joseph Conrad story – a descent into the extremes of human will, self-delusion, and madness in confrontation with the wildest of natural worlds. It is unquestionably the best film of its kind since Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man."

Going into this "Deep," North American audiences are at a particular advantage – especially over their British and continental counterparts – for not knowing so much about the Crowhurst saga: It's one of those campfire tales that's never more powerful than on a first listening. (For that reason, this review will refrain from revealing too much.) In this way, the film resonates in similar fashion to such accounts of everyday people in extraordinarily dangerous situations as Jon Krakauer's chilling account of the 1996 Mt. Everest tragedy, "Into Thin Air."

The triumphant 1967 round-the-world solo voyage by Francis Chichester (stopping only once in Australia) had brought much glory to Brittania at a time when patriotic fervor was in short supply. The Sunday Times of London pushed that fervor higher with the offer of a 5,000-pounds prize for the first nonstop solo sailing voyage, set to launch in the fall of 1968.

While the contest predictably drew the world's tiny sailing elite, including French master Bernard Moitessier and rival Robin Knox-Johnston, the wild card entry was Crowhurst, who had never competed at such a high level. (It was later revealed that Crowhurst's experience was barely above that of a weekend sailor.)

The very unlikelihood of Crowhurst in such a group is story enough, and what intrigues filmmakers Osmond and Rothwell in the early stages of the adventure is the orchestrated public relations campaign – massaged by The Times – to boost Crowhurst as an everyman figure. 

Crowhurst, though, was far from an everyman. Interviews with friends as well as his wife, Claire, and son, Simon, layered with exceptionally haunting visual choices and a magnificent narration reading by Tilda Swinton, reveal a man who grew up in a family that faced near-destitution, instilling in him the drive to avert failure at all cost.

His own modest marine-electronics business was nearly bust prior to the race, but his vision of a more technologically developed sailboat – a trimaran, designed for maximum speed – could give him a leg up on the stiff competition. Even before he's the last in the field to set sail on the last permissible launch date for the race (Oct. 31), the suspense if this rookie racer will even hit the seas is almost unbearable.

Almost nothing that you may want to predict or expect about what happens to Crowhurst on the wide, wild Atlantic actually happens. Rather, "Deep Water" is about the unexpected turns of the human heart, the metaphysical effects of being alone on the open sea for extended periods of time, and the brutal reality that as dangerous as the ocean's natural forces might be (and they are powerfully captured here in stunning archival footage from the racers, particularly the extraordinary Moitessier, who becomes the film's main supporting character), nothing is remotely as hazardous as the human mind's unlimited capacity for unpredictable detours.

The paradox inside "Deep Water" is how a tale about desire, imagination, and possible insanity is so marvelously sculpted and formed into total cinema art, the antithesis of the loss of control that the adventure entails. Crowhurst remains an enigma, but "Deep Water's" account of a modern Icarus is frighteningly clear in its perceptions and aftershocks. Grade: A

Rated PG for thematic elements, mild language, and incidental smoking.

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