Roy Disney once took part in the TransPac race, which takes you 2275 nautical miles on a yacht, from California to Hawaii, over the course of some ten days (or more). It results in "one of the most coveted trophies in the world of competitive sailing," which sounded about as exciting to me as saying that broccoli was "one of the most beloved of all green vegetables." Apparently it changed Disney's life, to the point that he wanted to share his life-changing experience with everyone else, via this documentary. But rather than race again himself, he spends his considerable money and influence to put together a kind of reality show in which eleven amateur twenty-somethings race against seasoned veterans. "It's really about the journey," says Disney at one point early in the film, which is his insurance against the movie's ending. If they win, he's got a great, exuberant, happy ending. If they lose he can just say, "It's really about the journey" again.
The first half of Morning Light consists of the reality-show setup. The racers get several months to train, and we get a tense countdown on the screen, along with a truly awful music score by a group called "Matter." They practice and fail. One girl goes snowboarding and breaks her arm, which provides at least ten minutes of drama. The racers contribute some of those from-the-heart testimonials, in which they talk about how meaningful all this is (they use phrases like "everything hinges on..." and "...decides our fate"). We also have to wait while the racers watch surprise videos sent by their family members, wishing them good luck and whatnot. But worst of all is the scene in which the fifteen chosen contestants must choose which eleven of them actually get to go on the boat. (The other four are alternates.) It's not unlike those annoying, "suspenseful" pauses before some "American Idol" or "Next Top Model" contestant gets kicked off the show. Out of the fifteen, there are only two girls and one black guy, and only one of these gets to go on the boat with 10 white guys.
The actual race settles down quite a bit, and we get a bit more spontaneity and organic drama. Disney's boat is called the "Morning Light," which is quite a lovely name, and the boat ventures through some equally lovely scenery in the remote ocean waters. The co-directors Paul Crowder and Mark Monroe do a very nice job of detailing the mundane chores of the race, such as cooking the horrible-looking, freeze-dried food (this may be a 52-foot yacht, but no one is eating quail and caviar) and sleeping in the cramped, smelly, stuffy conditions of the quarters below. There's also a portion of the race in which the sailors must decide how to get around a huge dead spot in the water. They must veer either north or south, otherwise they'll find themselves without wind, and stuck. This may not sound that interesting, but it actually creates some suspense onscreen.
Then, the movie tries to invent a villain from among the other entries, and it chooses the "Samba," manned by a group of older veterans. Miraculously, the "Samba" remains pretty close to the "Morning Light" throughout the race, and at one point, they are within sight of one another. The directors do not fail to milk this for all the drama it's worth. Occasionally, they even replace the awful "Matter" score with more appropriate and energizing pop songs. But I often stopped to wonder: where were these mysterious filmmakers? Were they on the boat, too? If so, didn't they affect the race, somehow? Wouldn't their weight and the weight of the film equipment slow everything down? It's much like that IMAX film about climbing to the top of Everest; the story of the guy carrying his backpack to the summit is nothing compared to the unseen guy carrying the heavy IMAX camera. Perhaps the behind-the-scenes stories would have made more interesting films.
After the race, Morning Light spends a lot of time dealing with the rampant post-race emotions, including some "clandestine" scenes of crying, etc. But as the movie ended, I really didn't feel the life-changing experience that Disney had or these racers had. Rather, I felt empty, like I never had an amazing boat race to throw some perspective on my own life. In that, the movie blatantly fails; it fails to let us live vicariously through these sailors and actually join them on their trip. And it fails because it's a reality show. It's less about validating your life by racing in a boat and more about validating your life by appearing on a TV or movie screen.