Murray Hamilton, the mayor of Amity in “Jaws,” embodied the short-sighted, economy-first attitude that made him such a terrible leader. Universal Pictures/IMBD

Movies have caught a lot of undeserved blame over the years. Hand-wringers, scapegoaters, and other assorted busybodies have tried to lay responsibility for the day’s perceived societal ills at the feet of popular entertainment like the movies since movies were invented, and it’s as transparently silly now as it’s ever been.

On the other hand, the one thing movies are really good at is creating really effective cautionary tales. Not through carefully crafted moralizing or well-intentioned but inevitably leaden message movies, but simply by projecting onto the nation’s screens some truly terrible people. The sort of fictional characters who, when the chips are down and true character is inevitably revealed, no viewer would ever, ever want to be compared to.

Well, we in the real world are (and have been) in a serious, disaster movie scenario for almost two pandemic-lockdown years now. And, as COVID-19 cases spike once more thanks to some unfortunate real-world weaselly, irresponsible or plain old rock-stupid behavior, here’s a list of disaster-movie characters you should, under no circumstances, emulate. Who knows — maybe movies can finally influence some behaviors after all.

Mayor Larry Vaughn: “Jaws.”

The plague: A really, really big shark.

This example has been cited a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that’s because Murray Hamilton’s Amity mayor embodies the short-sighted, “economy-first” attitude so indelibly. The epitome of the glad-handing, boosterish politician, Vaughn has his eyes locked on his seaside town’s vital revenue stream, the summer tourist trade. That his pooh-poohing of warnings of a hungry, tourist-devouring man-eater knifing the Amity waters eventually results in heaps of unnecessary bodies, as well as the loss of the town’s economic lifeline, is as inevitable as it is fitting.


The lesson: A deadly problem doesn’t go away just because it’d be really convenient if it did. Listen to the experts, face the crisis head on, and maybe you’ll get back to normal sooner rather than disastrously later.

Mayor Larry Vaughn: “Jaws 2.”

The plague: Another really, really big shark.

I actually think that poor Larry gets a bit of a bad rap in “Jaws.” Sure, a bunch of people get eaten, but he’s just a politician dealing with something unexpected and terrifying, and he really does have the good of his town in mind. But the hell with this guy in the sequel, where, faced once more with mounting evidence that the town’s shark problem isn’t as over as they’d imagined, the mayor does the exact same thing again. He even fires Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider, for sounding the alarm, leading to a second wave of preventable deaths.

The lesson: Prioritize money over human lives once, shame on Larry. Do it a second time, and Larry can go and jump right into a waiting shark’s toothy maw. When the facts prove inconvenient, Larry fires the one person willing to tell everyone hard truths. Like this new delta variant-driven COVID-19 emergency, “Jaws 2” is a completely unnecessary sequel.

Mrs. Carmody: “The Mist.”


The plague: Slimy, tentacled, human-devouring monsters from beyond.

Sticking closer to home, Maine’s own Stephen King loves his character types. And when the monsters come crawling and the vampires are at the door, there’s sure to be a self-proclaimed, religion-cloaked savior leading people down the worst possible path. In “The Mist” it’s Marcia Gay Harden’s terrifyingly plausible town moralist Mrs. Carmody, who, trapped inside a Maine supermarket by unspeakable beasties, quickly positions herself as the one person who can solve everything — if only her growing flock of terrified followers do exactly as she says. Eventually turning her zealot’s gaze on Thomas Jane’s one sensible person trying to actually face up to the problem at hand, the store’s aisles are soon flooded with zombie-eyed acolytes, looking to cook up some human sacrifices.

The lesson: A crisis begets real monsters. People who set themselves up, in the face of legitimate fear of the unknown, as the only ones who can be counted upon to save the day — if only others do what they say without question. Now, some smart-aleck columnist might point to a certain former president who urged his minions to ignore science and common sense and to, instead, scapegoat those who would question his cultish infallibility, but we’re just talking movies here.

Alan Krumwiede: “Contagion.”

The plague: An actual plague.

I don’t understand why people are so eager to revisit fictional cinematic pandemics during this pandemic, but if Jude Law’s conspiracy theorist scares just one person away from being the sort of misinformation-spouting nincompoop on Facebook, then I’ll allow it. In Steven Soderbergh’s ever more prescient pandemic drama, the unexpected emergence of a deadly contagion across the world shows how some people will seize upon any opportunity to empower themselves at the expense of, literally, the survival of the human race. Law’s internet troll vaults into the limelight by both undermining the efforts of scientists to find and administer a vaccine against the film’s humanity-imperiling virus, and peddling his own fraudulent “miracle cure.”

The lesson: Soulless opportunism and careerism thrive when people are afraid. Science and medicine take time, but quick-fix chicanery is instant and as contagious as any virus. The cynical conspiracy peddler Krumwiede knows his forsythia-based “cure” is worse than useless, but he steers his multiplying online fans toward it for a buck, and to increase his fame and influence. Again, that aforementioned columnist could point to Fox News figures and that former president for pushing their (figuratively) rabid followers to ingest everything from bleach to hydroxychloroquine to a liver-destroying anti-worm paste instead of getting the scientifically proven COVID-19 vaccine, but, again, it’s just the movies, right?

I will just note in passing that the ultimately arrested Krumwiede is bailed out of jail by his still-loyal followers at film’s end, even though his cure literally caused the deaths of untold people. It seemed implausible at the time.

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