If you ever had any doubt about how corporate mergers can make for strange bedfellows — and it’s 2023, so you should have gotten this memo long ago — one need look no further than After the Bite, a documentary programmed to play like the answer to the generally unasked question, “What would happen if Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav forced HBO to participate in Shark Week?”
Presumably, the creative origins of Ivy Meeropol’s (Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn) film and Discovery’s annual celebration of all things toothy and ichthyological were completely separate. But following its initial airing on HBO, After the Bite will migrate over to Max, where it can be promoted next to such Shark Week titles as Serial Killer Red Sea Attacks, The Shark of the Moral Universe Bends Toward Carnage and Great White Fight Club (only two of those are real).
After the Bite
The Bottom Line
Airdate: 10 p.m. Wednesday, July 26 (HBO)
Director: Ivy Meeropol
Discovery has mastered the art of the sensationalistic title and poster for its Shark Week programming, but some of the lineup (not all, but some) in the popular block has substance. As would befit an HBO approach to the subject, After the Bite starts its story at the point of greatest sensationalism and, from there, goes quiet and pragmatic, eschewing high-pitched shrieking and chummed waters in favor of a more ideologically varied approach. I don’t think Meeropol’s formal choices always match the story she wants to capture, and After the Bite runs out of energy well before the end of its 90-minute running time. But I mostly enjoyed the idea of a more muted version of Jaws that suggests that if we have a contemporary shark attack problem, the solution is going to require more than a bigger boat.
Everybody in After the Bite is, unavoidably, well aware of Jaws. The old fishermen at the dive bar joke about it. The Wellfleet, Massachusetts, drive-in movie theater is showing it as part of a summer double-bill.
Tragically, the documentary’s focal area of Cape Cod is still living in the aftermath of the deadly 2018 shark attack that killed Arthur Medici — still seeking answers as to what happened on that horrible September day and trying to figure out the necessary steps to keep it from ever happening again.
As Meeropol’s chosen title suggests, the documentary is not about that one fatal attack. The day is remembered by several witness, but the documentary deftly avoids any predictable shock tactics. There are no reenactments. The footage from that day is limited to snapshots taken on the beach. The focus isn’t on visceral horror or visceral sentiment.
What Meeropol and so many of the documentary’s featured characters want to do is take a step back to reflect, to avoid rushes to judgment or action — though the actions that are taken both mirror and contrast with the ways in which the residents of Amity handled Steven Spielberg’s fictional shark attack. There are traces of local politics, but in this case it’s reasoned town hall meetings with nary an oblivious, cold-hearted mayor in sight. There are scenes with biologists out on the water looking for sharks, but armed with tagging devices instead of weapons. When a lifeguard at a beach spots what he thinks is a fin on the horizon and sounds an alarm, the exit from the water is calm and orderly and, rather than panicking, people stand on the shoreline filming the placid waters with their phones.
After the Bite is a series of snapshots or vignettes capturing a community and its responses instead of a thriller or a work of high drama. Elites worried that the risk of sharks will destroy the tourist economy are matched with locals pondering declines in the commercial fishing economy. Animal rights activists celebrating the return of both the sharks and seals — the sharks’ favorite prey — to an environment in which they had seemingly been wiped out are matched with advocates for amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. And while those advocates insist that they’re not suggesting seals need to be killed off just a wee bit, they’re definitely not not suggesting that. Many of the documentary’s arguments coalesce in a hard-to-dispute portrait of nature out of balance because of a combination of climate change and entrenched human behaviors.
The documentary is structurally loose — so much so that it would be impossible to know when it was filmed if not for the proliferation of masks — but maybe could have stood to be even looser. It’s half a very traditional documentary with experts and local talking heads, and half a fly-on-the-wall vérité documentary.
People whose curiosity tends toward the former will be frustrated by how Meeropol hovers on the outside of every argument, providing lots of nebulous context but never pushing politicians or scientists for concrete answers or explanations. It’s a lot of half-arguments, reflective, I guess, of nature’s fundamental unknowability. Those with a preference for something more contemplatively formless will find the available structuring to be obtrusive, with the moments of over-explaining and narrativizing rendering the snapshots almost confusing. Why, for example, in a documentary set largely in Provincetown is the only acknowledgment of the gay community a two-minute glimpse of a shark-heavy musical revue that’s formally and tonally unconnected to anything else?
That indecisiveness rendered the doc’s lack of a real ending unsatisfying for the part of me looking for answers and unconvincing for the part of me craving something more impressionistic. Still, being neither fish (sincere apologies) nor fowl doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy After the Bite as something of a Shark Week bait (more apologies) and switch. It’s a serious-minded documentary in a genre that has strayed far from anything serious-minded.