Marine maverick: ‘PLAYING WITH SHARKS’ a comprehensive, heartfelt biodoc about trailblazing shark advocate Valerie Taylor

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

PLAYING WITH SHARKS: THE VALERIE TAYLOR STORY

TV-14, 90 minutes.
Director: Sally Aitken
Featuring: Valerie Taylor, Ron Taylor, Wendy Benchley, Stan Waterman, Jean-Michael Cousteau, Ben Sagata, Carl Roessler, Douglas Seifert, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Howard Hall, Jayne Jenkins, Jeremiah Sullivan, Mark Heighes, Michele Hall, and Rodney Fox.

Available Friday to stream on Disney+.

Playing with Sharks is a beautiful, inspiring and incredibly sincere documentary feature written and directed by two-time Emmy nominated filmmaker Sally Aitken (The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill). It centers on 85-year-old Valerie Taylor, the Australian shark research pioneer and underwater filmmaker whose life work has become the basis for everything we know about the species. Through Aitken’s lens, Taylor’s story is told with such respectful and informal excellence. Your eyes fall upon stunningly restored underwater archival footage and reflective interviews with Taylor and other ocean explorers.

The National Geographic documentary film release is part of Nat Geo’s ninth annual SharkFest, which occurs across multiple networks and Disney+ over six weeks. It kicked off on July 5 with Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth, a 45-minute documentary film directed by Aitken. Shark Beach only gives us a glimpse of the impact Taylor has had on this endangered ecosystem. On the other hand, Playing with Sharks opens it up with a nearly 60-year exploration of Taylor’s career in the sea.

Aitken’s film allows us to see Taylor’s growth, not just in terms of her skillset but also her mindset regarding the ocean and the life that occupies it. Her love for the water began with hunting, an approach that one interviewee says is how some of the greatest conservationists began. In the archival footage, Taylor can be seen spearing fish, crab and one shark. It’s a memory that she is not proud of but holds onto because it helped lay down the foundation for which she completely turned around her life and opinion of sea life. At one point, Taylor states that at the time (the late 1950s and early ’60s), there was a false understanding that there was too much life in the water, and it was OK to kill. But as time and science have taught us, it’s a mistake that we’re paying for and will continue to pay for unless awareness is spread, and action is taken.

You may come into this thinking that Playing with Sharks is going to be excessively preachy. However, this is not the case. There are so many approaches to these types of films. Just last week, Eli Roth released a heartbreaking and uncomfortable documentary about shark finning, titled Fin. It’s a film that is difficult to stomach, as it assembles some of the most hard-to-watch footage you will ever see. Roth maintains that level of unsettlement throughout, only leaning toward positivity in the last 12 minutes. Aitken takes the opposite approach and allows viewers to take in the beauty, for the most part. It unfolds more like an individual learning what’s right and wrong along the way.

For instance, Taylor and her husband Ron helped Steven Spielberg with the filming of Jaws. The Taylors captured the underwater shark footage used in the film. Through behind-the-scenes footage, we can see them shoot moments like a great white stuck on top of a cage. It wasn’t a planned scene. One commenter even says that it’s not like you can teach a shark how to act.

Nevertheless, the footage was shown to Spielberg, and the filmmakers worked it into the script (when Richard Dreyfus’ character’s cage is attacked). It’s impressive that they manage to get this footage. However, moments later, victorious feelings evaporate when Jaws becomes a blockbuster success and gives audiences the wrong idea about sharks.

Following the film’s release, people began to fear sharks and kill them. The shark death toll rose so high that Jaws author Peter Benchley stated that he would have never written the book if he knew this would be the outcome. The Taylors went on a press tour to get a more positive conversation going about sharks and how people shouldn’t mix fiction with reality, just as they would not fear King Kong attacking a major city. This journey of growth is one of the film’s most compelling aspects. Even for me, someone who is a diehard Jaws fan, I am rethinking how to talk about the film and view it.

This is how you know a film has the power to make a difference. Try not to get teared up over a touching moment when the Taylors remove a great white shark stuck in a net. They disregard the danger of the practice entirely, not worrying about the animal biting them. They free the shark, and it swims away. You can’t help but recognize the beauty of humans and sharks coexisting.

If Playing with Sharks succeeds at anything (and it succeeds at many things), it’s that it shows that sharks need us, and we need them. Valerie Taylor’s loving spirit, kindness and taste for adventure are qualities to learn from. Her life should be celebrated, and so should this great film.

Grade: A-

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.