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What 'Jaws' can teach us about our coronavirus response

Updated 10:35 AM ET, Sun May 24, 2020

Editor's Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, "Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party." Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) - Forty-five years ago, on June 20, 1975, America became captivated by the release of the first summer blockbuster film, "Jaws." People flocked to theaters to see Steven Spielberg's terrifying movie about a shark threatening the lives of beachgoers.

Today, as summer sets in, four and a half decades later, we find ourselves facing similar tensions to the ones that unfolded on screen back then. Now, our shark is a virus -- and as we grapple with how to keep citizens safe while reopening our public spaces, the film can offer some important lessons.

The story takes place in a resort town called Amity over the July 4th weekend. It begins with a great white shark killing a young woman who is skinny dipping.

While her death was clearly the result of a shark attack, the town's mayor, Larry Vaughn, (played by Murray Hamilton) decides not to shut down the beaches. He's worried about losing the revenue. "Now, if people can't swim here, they'll be glad to swim at the beaches of Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Long Island," he says in the film. Police Chief Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider) tries to change the mayor's position, convinced that the shark is real. But to no avail.

The pressure to keep the beaches open, come what may, is not unlike today's pressure to reopen the economy as soon as possible. But we should take note of what happened in the movie: keeping the beach open turned out to be a disaster.

Predictably, as people keep swimming, the shark continues to kill. The audience can see it coming even if some of the characters cannot. The town gradually learns that it is not possible to carry on with business-as-usual while the danger exists in the water. Brody, along with a shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) and a shark expert named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), understands what lurks in the water. Quint is willing to hunt the shark, but only for a steep price.

The mayor prefers easier and cheaper solutions. After some fishermen believe they have caught and killed the shark, though they can't prove it's the same fish, the mayor tells reporters, "We have, in fact, caught and killed a large predator that supposedly injured some bathers. But, as you see, it's a beautiful day, the beaches are opened, and people are having a wonderful time."

But they hadn't caught Jaws. Hooper knows this and tells the mayor, explaining that he had found a tooth from the real shark culprit that was so massive it couldn't be the one the fishermen caught. But the mayor doesn't believe him -- and it's only after another attack that kills a young boy in front of the packed beach that the mayor agrees to hire Quint to catch and kill the shark.

"Summer is over. You are the Mayor of Shark City." Brody says. When the mayor mutters, "I was acting in the town's best interest," Brody responds: "That's right . . . and that's why you are going to do the right thing."

Brody, Quint and Hooper are on the frontlines, setting out to take down the shark despite the risks to themselves. When Brody finally sees its massive head break the surface of the water while they sit in their boat, he famously says to Quint, "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

With a terrifying soundtrack that would fit the mood of today, signaling a danger that lurks all around, the rest of the film revolves around the hunt. The film moves forward with a series of near-fatal encounters -- Quint ultimately becoming one of the victims -- until they finally figure out a way to kill Jaws.

Today, too, we are on a mission to thwart an organism that can kills us. Our intrepid "shark hunters" are health care workers and scientists, as well as the responsible governors who have been warning about the gravity of the pandemic. These heroic characters want to reopen society in ways that will guarantee the safety of consumers and workers, while creating confidence for all Americans to reenter public spaces -- even if some risks remain.

On the other hand, we are also hearing from our own Mayor Vaughn -- President Donald Trump -- who feels that it costs too much to keep people at home where they are safe.

Trump is downplaying the threat and minimizing the risk and his inner circle is helping him. Indeed, the President's son, Eric Trump, went on television to suggest that the pandemic is being used to advantage Democrats in the upcoming election, and that the outcry and response over the virus will disappear as soon as Election Day passes.

He ignores the fact that, like a hungry shark, Covid-19 is a real danger that lurks all around us.

Ultimately, Jaws delivers a basic, and hard to dispute, message: that in order to make people feel safe to go into the water you need to defeat the shark.

The good news is that we can defeat our own viral "shark." It will take time and patience, and require massive federal investments into vaccine development, economic stimulus, health care institutions and insurance, as well as in the well-being of all vital civic institutions that are threatened by the fallout of our horror. But we can and will make it safe for citizens to one day return to normal.

We enter the summer season tired and worn down but having made progress over the past months in flattening the curve of contagion, slowly starting the process of recovery -- for now -- as we await a vaccine. To continue this trend, we need to heed the warnings of those who have been leading the hunt and make sure our invisible shark is truly defeated before we send people back into the water.


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