The advance screening invitation Tuesday for "The Unsinkable Henry Morgan" at the too-hip Downtown Independent theater was promising. It teased 30 minutes of undersea adventure in the hope of creating buzz for the documentary's premiere on the Sundance Channel this Sunday night.
In 1671, Capt. Henry Morgan's fleet raided the Spanish settlement in Panama and probably burned it down (someone did; unclear who, but such brutal, king-of-the-mountain behavior was typical of Morgan) before karma ran his ships onto Lajas Reef, or some other neighborhood impediment.
Pirates are hot ... sorry, trending ... these days, or they were 10 minutes ago, and who doesn't love a story of pillaging and recovering the spoils of that pastime after 350 years of repose under the Caribbean Sea? We thought we would see tall tales and under-construction truths, learn how a renowned underwater archaeologist found and reclaimed the flagship of Morgan, the privateer representative of the British Empire in all its imperialistic glory, trying to horn in on Spain's New World action.
We thought "The Unsinkable Henry Morgan" would show how Fritz Hanselmann, chief underwater archaeologist at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, had found the sunken Satisfaction, as well as a bunch of historical artifacts.
What we saw was "My Dinner with Andre," with less action.
I'm no film critic, but it seems to me when you have all the raw material for a real-life swashbuckler, a history-infused contemporary quest for ships, cannons, swords and who knows what other undersea pirate-y loot, you tell that story. You don't spend 30 minutes filming a costume designer's creation of Morgan's coat, a watercolorist's depiction of a burning Panamanian settlement, a model maker's miniature Satisfaction, a chin-stroking author of a book about Morgan and a couple of travel journalists, all sitting around talking about how lucky they were to get this gig.
These folks are all accomplished members of their professions. But this isn't their story. It's Hanselmann's. Instead of wandering around in search of a storyline, of a way to let the audience down easy--spoiler alert!--when we learn that the divers found an authentic, 17th-century ship, but not one of Morgan's, the film just should have given Hanselmann the tiller.
He's an accomplished reclaimer of underwater historical treasure, and, for crying out loud, he looks like a pirate. He admitted as much during a Q&A at the theater after the screening. Solidly built with longish blond hair and a soul patch, Hanselmann is charming, one of probably few research scientists who can impart the gee-whizzery of a shell-encrusted cutlass in the context of the conservation necessary to preserve it for generations to come. He cares about the environment that is his office as much as the bounty it yields, and he's good at explaining why. He has the coolest job in the world, and we want to watch him do it, and talk about it.
Why the director, Michael Haussman, who also participated in the Q&A with disjointed, confused comments, chose to tell and not show this tale is a damn shame. All storytellers, at some point, struggle with how to relate a drama that ends in a way they don't anticipate. The problem with "The Unsinkable Henry Morgan" isn't that the ship they found wasn't Morgan's, the problem is that the film fails to embrace the journey, and to embrace Hanselmann as our guide.
Captain Morgan Rum, which funded the documentary, has to be disappointed that evidence of Henry Morgan remains sunk in the sand. But it should be even more disappointed that a good story foundered on the shoals of poor conception.
To see a trailer of the film, link here.
Photo: Sundance Channel