David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
Want to understand how public meetings work, the power of place-based branding, and why bad mayors keep getting re-elected? Look no further than Amity Island.
A few weeks before the off-year elections of November 2017, this tweet appeared:
The mayor from Jaws is still the mayor in Jaws 2. It is so important to vote in your local elections.— Adam Goodell (@adamgoodell) October 21, 2017
In the 1975 blockbuster Jaws, Mayor Larry Vaughn’s decision to keep the beaches of Amity Island open for the 4th of July weekend contributes to the deaths of five constituents. In the time since, he’s become a kind of shorthand for incompetence-gone-unpunished. Somehow, voters in the Town of Amity failed to hold Mayor Vaughn accountable for his leadership: Three years later, in Jaws 2, the guy’s still in office.
The villainous/oblivious city leader is a recurring motif in many a disaster flick, and Mayor Vaughn (as incarnated by the great character actor Murray Hamilton) now stars in a thriving genre of online mockery for his governance and wardrobe choices (here’s a throw pillow with his signature anchor-blazer motif). But beyond the failures of the Vaughn administration, Jaws offers a rich set of insights into the mechanics of cities: It’s a story about how chronic corruption, ineffective leadership, and inadequate planning can turn a hungry fish into a regional economic catastrophe.
Perhaps because the film’s mechanical shark proved to be buggy, director Steven Spielberg lavished a comically large amount of screen time on the mundane details of small-town life. Everyone’s going on about getting civic ordinances and signing mayoral vouchers; poor Roy Scheider can’t even walk down the street without getting mobbed by townspeople who want to complain about parking enforcement. If not for all the red tape, the beaches would have been closed 15 minutes into the movie and the shark would have swam away. The true hidden menace of Jaws is intractable municipal bureaucracy.
Here are just a few of the many lessons it holds for city leaders.
1: White flight = bad karma
Chief Martin Brody hates the water, but he hates mid-’70s New York City even more. And who can blame him? As this Nation review from 1975 notes, Jaws opened as heaps of uncollected garbage piled up in the streets of the bankrupt city. So Brody trades that urban hellscape for placid Amity Island, which looks like an Edward Hopper painting and is presided over by an all-white troupe of septuagenarian selectmen. “The crime rate in New York will kill ya,” a boozed-up Brody tells marine biologist Matt Hooper. “But in Amity, one man can make a difference. In 25 years, there’s never been a shooting or a murder in this town!”
Ah, but the chief succeeds only in exchanging one form of random violence for another. Plus, beneath its quaint exterior, Amity is seething with some entrenched Serpico-grade corruption.
2: It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up
Jaws isn’t just the first proper modern summer blockbuster: It’s a Watergate film, shot in the spring and summer of 1974 and suffused with the paranoia and skepticism of the era. As this oral history of its filming recalls, crew members were throwing “Impeach Nixon” parties after-hours on Martha’s Vineyard, where the film was shot. Accordingly, just about every tie-wearing representative of officialdom is super-corrupt. That becomes clear once we meet the compliant medical examiner who agrees to change the official cause of death of the first victim to “boating accident” in order to avoid endangering the holiday weekend—just one of many cover-ups that Amity’s town fathers conspire to perpetrate.
3: Support better local media
The fourth estate is no help providing oversight on any of this, as we see in the person of Ben Meadows, the Amity Gazette’s useless editor-reporter. Amity isn’t exactly a news desert, since it still has its own newspaper, but it might as well be, given Meadows’ reportage. He’s the Russia Today of the Vaughn administration, a soft-power tool that happily propagandizes for the not-a-shark-attack narrative and later promises the mayor he’ll bury the story of Mrs. Kintner’s $3,000 bounty for her son’s killer in the back of the Gazette, “along with the grocery ads.”
4: Public meetings are terrible
That conversation takes place during a town meeting in Amity’s City Hall, which, like many such gatherings, is mostly an opportunity for a handful of cranks to shout over each other. “I have a point of view and I think it speaks for many of the people in here!” proclaims the motel-owning councilwoman. The police chief tries, again, to explain that there’s a shark out there eating people, but the business community pitches a fit over a 24-hour beach closure, because they need those summer dollars. It’s the kind of spittle-flecked shitshow that just about any planner or local politico will recognize from the last time a bike-lane or senior-housing proposal came up.
There’s one guy with a good idea at this meeting, and it’s Quint the Shark Hunter, who offers to kill the shark for $10,000. (That’s like $50 grand today.) “We’ll take it under advisement,” the mayor says. Meeting over! Nothing accomplished!
5: Always blame developers
So why is Mayor Vaughn so utterly determined to keep the beaches open? The movie doesn’t get into this, but Peter Benchley’s novel has a whole boring subplot about how the Mafia has a lot of money in Amity real estate, and they’re strong-arming the mayor to keep the tourists coming to protect their investment. If you’re really curious about this angle, please enjoy Jaws 2, in which an evil developer opens a new hotel to revive Amity’s post-Jaws economic slump, leading to another round of arguments with Chief Brody when a new shark shows up. Then Brody gets fired, and the shark bites a helicopter, and eh it’s actually pretty bad. But, again: It’s really the developer’s fault.
6: Protect the brand!
And, yes, Mayor Vaughn is still mayor in that movie. How did he pull off this feat of political survival? While the mayor’s decision-making throughout the film is rightly criticized, he does seem to have an innate sense of brand discipline. Actual PR folks cite him as an instructive example of how to manage a crisis. (Here’s one smart Mayor Vaughn move: telling Hooper not to cut open the tiger shark they’ve just caught in front of the crowd of reporters on the dock.) The mayor has also mastered that infuriating political habit of reframing the scandal he helped create around his own personal suffering—“my kids were on that beach, too!” He’d be a menace on Twitter.
In real life, voters have not been so kind to political leaders charged with shark mitigation. In 1916, a series of shark attacks on the Jersey Shore killed four people and triggered a national media frenzy that drew in the federal government, led by former New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. As political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels explain in their book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, the local economy was devastated when summer tourism collapsed. And President Wilson, unlike Mayor Vaughn, ended up eating the blame: “The attacks were no one’s fault, but the voters bit back anyway,” the authors wrote. “In the Shore towns, Wilson’s vote in November dropped precipitously.”