Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees likes to picture James Cameron shackled to the rail of the great wrecked liner on the bottom of the ocean.
In a solitude of the sea
-- from "The Convergence of the Twain: Lines on the Loss of the Titanic," by Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy's 1912 poem "The Convergence of the Twain" captures much of our continuing fascination with the Titanic and its sinking: the contrast between the great ship's opulence and splendor and its grisly end, the ruthless irony that punished human vanity for creating a ship touted as "unsinkable," the way the disaster served as the ultimate leveler, bringing the rich and wealthy down to the same watery grave as the penniless immigrants in steerage class. The mythic quality of the disaster was perpetuated, not diminished, when in 1985 Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic's remains at the bottom of the North Atlantic. Titanic Revealed, a National Geographic program, tells the story of this discovery, which was cloaked in secrecy for years due to its connection with a secret government operation, and shows Ballard's return to the wrecked liner—now with more sophisticated camera equipment and the perspective gained from witnessing the development of Titanic frenzy.
When Ballard discovered the remains of the great liner, he was on a mission to locate the remains of two military submarines, and the political climate at the time demanded utter secrecy. Hence, not until years later was he able to disclose how he came to seek—and find—the famous ship. It was Ballard's idea to seek the debris trail that he observed in the cases of other wrecked vessels, and this insight led him to the Titanic. In the years since that discovery, plunderers have made fortunes off the wreck, bringing up wine bottles, dinner plates, and all manner of personal artifacts from the downed ship. Ballard's desire is to preserve the site from further pillaging and preserve it as a public museum, accessed through mobile underwater cameras like the one that provides the new footage we see here.
The underwater footage of the great ship is indeed fascinating, particularly the humble remains of people's lives. Ballard is an effective narrator and a sensitive observer: He can show us two half-buried shoes and conjure up for the viewer the heartbreaking image of a mother and child lying side by side. Unfortunately, we get relatively little footage like this that shows the human side of the tragedy; the camera largely stays outside the great ship, and for those of us who aren't big maritime buffs, that eventually begins to pall.
Significantly more tiresome was the frequency with which the same mother-and-daughter pair of Titanic fanatics appeared whenever the program referred to the ship as a representation of bygone elegance. Shot after shot showed those two mincing up a replica of the grand staircase until I wanted to grab them by the trains of their reproduction 1912 gowns and trip them up. In general, I found myself out of sympathy with the interviewed Titanic collectors, people who spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to own, say, a dinner menu from the great wreck. It would seem to me a much more worthwhile memorial for them to donate the money to the Coast Guard.
The extra footage that supplements the program is sometimes redundant, but it does offer more of the best part of the documentary: views of the wreck in its present state. The 11-minute sequence that is narrated by Ballard is more engrossing than the photo gallery, but the gallery provides useful captions to identify the often obscured debris, and it is organized handily by different parts of the ship. Picture and sound quality are clean and of strong quality, as befits a recent television program, although naturally the older archival footage is smearier than the new footage.
Maritime buffs and those fascinated by the Titanic tragedy will find this an interesting program, but a rental will probably suffice for all but the really serious collectors. Nevertheless, if it's a choice between spending money on this disc and contributing to James Cameron's already swollen coffers (and swollen ego), I heartily endorse the former course of action.
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