I feel like I’ve thought more about the mayor from Jaws more in the past three months than I have in the entire rest of my life, multiplied several times over. Out of all the major pop culture figures people have referenced as they’ve struggled to deal with the ongoing global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, he’s the one who feels most resonant: a seemingly humble politician who will always toe the party line, even if it means getting a lot of people killed. Even if it means denying the reality of the world right in front of him.
It seems likely Carl Gottlieb, the writer who gave the on-screen identity to that character, Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), has been giving his creation a lot more thought lately, too. In an interview with Uproxx, he expounds at length on the legacy of his creation and the modern-day politics that he suddenly seems to perfectly represent.
“I have a feeling that there has always been that tension between private gain and the public good, whether it’s the water in Detroit or even just in any of the millions of things in which the vested political and social interests – or in modern terms the oligarchy – wants to do things one way,” he tells the website, explaining the choice of the mayor as a villain. “And we needed some sort of antagonist besides the shark. Because the shark, first of all, we couldn’t see the shark for a long time, and the shark didn’t speak. The shark never said, ‘I’m going to kill some people,’ the way a Western villain would do. So in order for the guys to be the good guys, we needed somebody from the other side. I took the opportunity to give him a lot to say about the establishment’s point of view.”
But Gottlieb insists, interestingly enough, that there’s something sympathetic and human in Hamilton’s portrayal. He is a villain, certainly, but a recognizable and human one. And while the mayor in the book upon which Jaws is based is a truly awful person, the film’s portrayal has something decent about him, according to Gottlieb, even as he does horrid things.
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As Gottlieb puts it:
And he has a very telling line. In the hospital scene he says, “My kids were on that beach, too.” So he wasn’t a callous prick just leading that family to their death in the water. Basically, he’s a good politician, and he’s thinking of what the philosophers called, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” And at the time that he’s behaving that way, there is an opportunity for self-delusion. If he wants to believe it’s a boating accident, then that’s what it is. I have not revisited Jaws 2 for quite a while, but he’s still the mayor.
But that sort of humanity doesn’t excuse leading people to their deaths. And Gottlieb, in the rest of the interview, has some harsh words for the real politicians and leaders who follow in Mayor Vaughn’s footsteps. The whole thing is well worth a read, for no other reason than as a chance to reflect on how sometimes the fictional depictions that seem, frankly, too absurd to be true are often fundamentally honest in ways we’d rather not look at.