Reviewed by Steve Leonard
Documentary film “Fish & Men” explores the struggles of fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts as they fight to survive dwindling fish populations, tightening federal regulations, and increasingly powerful competition from larger corporations. The filmmakers interview independent fishermen, government regulators, chefs, writers, and activists in a thorough, urgent depiction of the economic, environmental, and cultural loss that the decline of local fishing represents. But “Fish & Men” is so much more than another story of a vanishing industry. The film is an emotionally moving, intellectually riveting exploration of the wider significance of independent fishing in the American Northeast, interrogating the place of fish in American culture from their role in US history to our culinary preferences as seafood consumers. In other words, this is not just a film for cod enthusiasts and documentary afficionados; anybody who has even a passing interest in the environment, in the restaurant business, or in the American identity will find this a memorable and highly worthwhile watch.
From an artistic standpoint, “Fish & Men” is excellent. The editing is smooth and persuasive, and the score is often strikingly beautiful. The cinematography depicts the vast, churning sea and the intimacy of a seafood meal with the same dignity and sense of grandeur. In a sense, this is representative of the film’s approach to the story as a whole; the magic of “Fish & Men” comes from its deep respect both for the ocean and for the fishermen who work it. In a media landscape where blue-collar workers are often treated as Luddite obstacles to environmental reform, this documentary avoids such simplistic answers and depicts just how valuable these small fishermen are to their communities, to the food networks of the world, and even to the health of the environment (relative to their more industrial competitors). The filmmakers engage these fishermen not just as a workforce to be evaluated, but first and foremost as humans with legitimate hopes and fears. In this way, “Fish & Men” transcends the immediate story of local fishing, reframing the struggle of the fishermen as the universal struggle for freedom, for respect, and for a future for one’s children. I was surprised to find myself more moved by this fish documentary than by just about any film I’ve watched recently.