What: Film Review – Short
Directed by: Michael Haussman
Featuring: Colleen Atwood, Stephan Talty, Andy Carrigan, Jon Zast
Running Time (in min.): 30 minutes
Language: English, Spanish w/ English subtitles
World Premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival
Presented The Sundance Channel and Captain Morgan in March 2013
The Unsinkable Henry Morgan (2013)
A project spanning three years of research and featuring a unique product placement business model, Michael Haussman medium-short film The Unsinkable Henry Morgan is a difficult nut to crack. Sponsored by Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, one of the most recognizable brand names in the world, and presented by The Sundance Channel several times since January 2013 to the present, the film is too long for a short film and too short for a feature. Yet perhaps its most beguiling feature is its unclassifiable hybrid of research and interview-based documentary, an almost Surrealist editing style, and so-unbelievable-it-is-true historical recreations.
Haussman and his host channel have arranged for a litany of well-respected speakers to discuss the career of Henry Morgan, a reputed English pirate from the 17th century. Costume designer Colleen Atwood (see: Tim Burton’s oeuvre) helps to animate the vastness of Morgan’s conquests through drawings and sketches of his ships. In between discussions with her and New York Times bestselling author Stephan Talty, Haussman records as a crew of divers off the coast of Lajos, Panama seek out one of Morgan’s lost expeditions. Expectedly, the findings are both amazing – talk of treasure chests and 1670s ship ruins abounds – and boring: did anyone expect that a doc about a pirate would reveal nothing at the bottom of the sea?
The team behind Henry Morgan is careful not to linger on any sequence of interviews or dives too long, choosing instead to integrate magnificent photography of the Panamanian coast and the modern-day film crew’s ship into the mix over anything else. Haussman directs with a smooth hand, suggesting further the assured relationship to documentary he brought to 2003’s The Last Serious Thing. Interview subjects seem never less than totally confident, attractive vessels for historical suggestion and knowledge. Even more impressively, subjects of the documentary include aged Panamian locals, whose wise camera-ready faces (which usually lack teeth, causing a truly mystical appearance) spout superstitious tales and “memories” about Morgan. In the broad range of subjects, Haussman generates some interesting concepts, if not any sense of the real.
Yet the film – which had its World Premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – is not entirely watchable, due in large part to a blurred line between what is real and what is not. Small sequences of historical recreation put the sponsorship of the captain’s namesake beverage to good use, employing impressive CGI and consistently vivid, gold-haloed imagery. These scenes distance the viewer from the major thesis of Henry Morgan, which is that society has forgotten Morgan’s incredible history. We neglect to realize, since he is a marketing tool, that the Captain commanded one of the world’s largest moving fleets – and was a major cultural force after invading Panama. Yet, by recreating through digital fakery the movement of Morgan’s treasure after a horrible crash, or by having archaelogists and historians map out a possible route for his fleet, Haussman confuses what is fascinating for what is real.
While The Unsinkable Henry Morgan does not seem at first glace like a project fit for the independent model of the Sundance banner, consider again the marketing brilliance. Assuring finance for independent filmmakers is perhaps the most difficult obstacle to students of the craft; for a product line to embrace such work is not new, but is rarely seen outside of the Hollywood system. By sponsoring a documentarian to work on an iconic character, fake or real, Captain Morgan Rum kills two birds with one stone: it suggests itself as a worthy product to the particular niche demographics that will watch or attend Sundance events; and it helps put a filmmaker’s meals together. If that’s the settlement that indie filmmaking must make to perpetuate itself, then let my below rating cast a vote on that idea. Warning: It’s a majority vote.