June 1975, six weeks after Time magazine headlined the Fall of Saigon as “The Anatomy of a Debacle” and wondered “How Should Americans Feel?,” brought two antithetical yet analogous movies: Robert Altman’s Nashville and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Each in its way brilliantly modified the cycle of “disaster” films that had appeared during Richard Nixon’s second term and were now, at the nadir of the nation’s self-esteem, paralleled by the spectacular collapse of South Vietnam and the unprecedented Watergate drama.
In fact, in their time, Jaws and Nashville were regarded as Watergate films and, indeed, both were in production as the Watergate disaster played its final act in the summer of 1974. On May 2, three days after Richard Nixon had gone on TV to announce that he was turning over transcripts of forty-two White House tapes subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee, the Jaws shoot opened on Martha’s Vineyard with a mainly male, no-star cast. The star was the shark or, rather, the three mechanical sharks — one for each profile and another for stunt work — that, run by pneumatic engines and launched by a sixty-five-foot catapult, were created by Robert Mattey, the former Disney special effects expert who had designed the submarine and giant squid for the 1956 hit Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Brought to Martha’s Vineyard in pieces and cloaked in secrecy, Mattey’s sharks took longer than expected to become fully operational, and Jaws was further delayed by poor weather conditions. Accounts of the production routinely refer to the movie itself as a catastrophe only barely avoided: “All over the picture shows signs of going down, like the Titanic.”
In late June, a month when Jaws was still unable to shoot any water scenes, and while Nixon visited the Middle East and Soviet Union in a hapless attempt to, as the president wrote in his diary, “put the whole Watergate business into perspective,” Altman’s cast and crew arrived in the city of Nashville. They were all put up at the same motel, with everyone expected to stick around for the entire ten-week shoot.
There is a sense in which Nashville represented a last bit of Sixties utopianism — the idea that a bunch of talented people might just hang out together in a colorful environment and, almost spontaneously, generate a movie. Even by Altman’s previous standards, Nashville seemed a freeform composition. It surely helped that neophyte producer Jerry Weintraub’s previous experience lay in managing tours, for Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley among others, and packaging TV specials.