‘The Last Cruise’ | Early lessons of the pandemic

The Last Cruise, released on Mar. 30, 2021, is a short documentary focused solely on the COVID-19 outbreak on board Princess Cruise Line’s Diamond Princess. As background, the Diamond Princess left Yokohama, Japan on Jan. 20, 2020 and was scheduled to disembark in Yokohama on Feb. 4, 2020. The ship carried 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew members. On the day of embarkation there was just four COVID-19 cases confirmed outside of China.

An estimated 712 people contracted COVID-19 while on board the ship, and up to 14 people died as a result. Many of the passengers were not able to disembark until at least Feb. 19 (15 days after originally scheduled), while some crew members were held until Mar. 1. The cruise is widely thought to be the first major outbreak of COVID-19 outside of China. (Note, for the sake of simplicity I will only use the term “COVID-19” in this review, referring to the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2).

'The Last Cruise' promo image.

‘The Last Cruise’. Image: HBO Documentary Films.

The Last Cruise – an overview

Clocking in at just 40 minutes run-time the HBO documentary The Last Cruise strives to tell one of the earliest horror stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, that of Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess. Unlike other documentaries about the pandemic The Last Cruise commits to telling its tale using mostly “found footage” from passengers, crew, and contractors, and supplemented with additional interviews. This approach has both pros and cons, as it’s clear that only certain parts of the story will be told. Likewise, the perspectives presented are from only a handful of people, those that bothered to document the event and who presumably showed interest in participating in the documentary.

As the film begins you see a montage of the most mundane of cruise activities, again compiled from found footage: line dancing demonstrations, the “sail away” party, what appears to be a Chinese New Year celebration, passengers gambling at the casino, and a friendly game of bocci ball. It’s unsettling to say the least, just imagining how a typical cruise can deteriorate in just a few short days.

We meet three sets of passengers during the documentary, with one couple being the most memorable. Mark and Jerri Jorgensen are Mormon therapists who treat pornography and sex addiction. The couple strikes me as being typical cruise cheerleaders, self absorbed and perhaps a bit culturally biased, and for most of the film they seem to view COVID-19 as just an inconvenience to their vacation plans. Of the passengers they are also the most insensitive to the crew, at one point insinuating that the crew is no longer providing excellent service because they are not receiving tips. Jerri is later hospitalized in Japan after she contracts the virus but she is also adamant that she will be on another cruise by May (the earliest cruises did not happen until approximately one year later).

A second couple, Kent and Rebecca Frasure, are a bit more sympathetic. Kent is in a wheelchair due to a broken leg; his wife meanwhile has multiple sclerosis and is immunocompromised. When his wife is later hospitalized in Japan you can see and feel Kent’s fear for his wife and their future together. It’s heartbreaking to see Kent struggle with his emotions as he is also increasingly concerned for his own safety, especially when he suspects that the virus is airborne, which we now know it was of course.

A third couple, Paul and Cheryl Molesky, we do not learn as much about, but their footage and commentary reinforce some of the opinions of the other passengers.

We also get the perspective of many crew members, the most articulate being Indonesian dishwasher Dede Samsul Fuad. At the start of the film Dede Samsul is enthusiastic and almost giddy about his job. He loves to travel the world and he is a hard worker; his job on the cruise ship seems a perfect fit. His transformation during the film is striking. You can see the stress and worry and fear begin to take hold, and by the end of the film he seems just a shadow of his former self.

As the film progresses the viewer is prompted by notable events in the outbreak’s timeline. For example, on Jan. 25 the CDC confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the U.S. When the ship arrives into Hong Kong the ship passengers are allowed to disembark, although some of them choose to wear a mask for the day’s excursions. We then see a montage of footage from the next port stops of the itinerary, including in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan.

The Outbreak Develops on Board

On Feb. 3, ostensibly the final night of the original cruise’s itinerary, the ship announced that one of the passengers had tested positive for COVID-19.

On Feb. 5 the ship announced that 10 passengers had tested positive for COVID-19 and that the ship would remain in quarantine in Yokohama, Japan for at least 14 days. The next update from the ship announced an additional 10 people confirmed with the virus.

At this time we also get a picture of what it was like for the crew working through this ordeal. The crew continued to work tirelessly for 12 hours a day, delivering approximately 9,000 meals per day to each stateroom. The passengers, meanwhile, are beginning to get restless from being confined to their rooms and are complaining about the quality of food and the service.

On Feb. 7 it was announced that there were 61 cases on board, and now 5 cases on the U.S. mainland. The local authorities wear full hazmat suits when boarding the ship to test passengers and perform other duties. One of the more chilling images from the film is seeing printed signs reading “COVID19+” that were placed on the doors of infected passengers.

The crew members are increasingly becoming sick, and there is no apparatus in place to keep them safe. With cramped quarters and shared kitchen and bathroom facilities, it’s clear that the virus is spreading just as quickly among the crew as among the passengers, in fact probably much more quickly. This was likely exasperated by the rigid, top-down hierarchy that is often enforced on ships. The crew members simply did not feel safe in expressing their fears or concerns, and they were also quick to hide their symptoms.

On Feb. 9 there were now 70 cases on board. A member of the security team, Sonali Thakkar, described how she had heard a rumor that the local government was planning to sink the ship and all those on board. The crew and passengers were also beginning to question the actions of the local authorities, particularly with regard to the testing protocols.

On Feb. 11 there were now 125 cases on board. An audio clip of Dr. Fauci is played from that time, in which he states that there is no reason for any person in the U.S. to wear a mask and that Americans should be focused on the flu instead. The passengers are trying to adapt to the changing conditions on board and film themselves doing routine activities to keep busy, such as exercise, making their bed, and scrubbing the toilet.

On this date we also see Rebecca Frasure disembarked after she tests positive. It’s a difficult scene to watch, knowing the uncertainty that both her and her husband must feel.

In one heartwarming moment a fishing vessel draws close to the ship with a homemade sign on its roof, reading “Don’t give up, we’re going to beat this virus!” (in Japanese). A man, seemingly dressed as a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, waves to the passengers.

On Feb. 13 there were 218 cases on board. The captain of the ship announced that two guests who had previously been disembarked due to illness had since passed away. We see an intimate recording of the Indonesian crew praying together, many increasingly worried about their own health and safety.

Sonali Thakkar, mentioned previously in this review, then becomes a “whistle-blower” or sorts, giving her story to the media and asking for help for all those on board. Sonali requests specifically that each crew member be tested and be given the opportunity to isolate for their safety.

The fears of the crew members are juxtaposed against some light-hearted moments that the guests are still having. The Jorgensens, for example, are shown enjoying lunch on their private balcony, enjoying the sun and fresh air; meanwhile crew members are stuck in their crowded rooms below deck, with no access to sunlight or fresh air. The Jorgensens also marvel at the special Valentine’s Day menu.

On Feb. 15 there were now 285 cases on board. Jerri Jorgensen is disembarked from the ship after testing positive, leavng her husband uncharacteristically concerned and downtrodden, appearing almost sick to his stomach. Jerri cheerfully describes the Japanese hospital experience, presumably to her social media followers, always upbeat and positive.

Kent Frasure is offered to be disembarked, along with the other passengers who had not tested positive by that point in time, but he chooses to remain on board in order to be with his wife who is still in the hospital.

On Feb. 17 there were now 454 cases on board. The passengers who tested negative are finally being disembarked. They are led onto motor coaches, with all passengers wearing N-95 masks, before being loaded onto a military transport plane. The passengers are shocked to find a tented area in the center of the plane, in which we learn that passengers who tested positive, and are likely contagious, are being held.

On Feb. 23 there are now 691 cases on board. We again see an update from Dede Samsul, who seems to have aged 10 years over the course of the film. By this point the remaining crew are becoming increasingly worried that they may never get off the ship. The desperate Indonesian crew members then banded together to send a plea via television to the Indonesian government.

On Mar. 1 the Indonesian crew were finally evacuated from the ship. A total of 712 people had become infected. 14 passengers died.

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

The Last Cruise is a terrifying glimpse into the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time in which there were so many unknowns and the world was struggling to understand this new threat. The Diamond Princess cruise also provided some of the earliest lessons of the pandemic, including that the virus could be spread by asymptomatic carriers and also that the virus was at least marginally airborne.

Unfortunately, the difficult lessons were not heeded in time. As the documentary concludes we learn that the CDC did not recommend mask use for another month (and then provided conflicting advice). They did not recommend testing of asymptomatic people, who had been exposed to the virus, for another two months. Of course, every country in the world had their own missteps in the process; the same process of trial and error happened worldwide.

The format of The Last Cruise, in using found footage, makes for an interesting plot device but it is limiting. Through much of the film the day-to-day timeline is well captured and shows a balance between the vastly different experiences of the passengers and the crew. The footage is framed in such a way that as a viewer you truly understand just how different the experiences really were.

That being said, the film does bring up some issues that are simply not related to the pandemic at all and are simply criticisms of the cruise industry. For example, at one point we are introduced to Maruja Daya, a pastry chef with two children who says she earns $997 a month in exchange for working 13-hour days with no time off. Without context there is very little that can be said about her situation.

We don’t know what country she is from (possibly Indonesia) and how much the cost of living is there. We don’t know why she took the job and why she chooses to work on a ship instead of being with her children. Presumably, we have to assume that she took the job because it pays better than what she can expect in her local economy and that she believes she is paid fairly enough to keep working the position.

Yet wages in a global economy will always be skewed, and companies will always prefer to pay employees less if they can. To ignore such a basic fundamental I feel is dishonest and does a disservice to the viewer. Don’t get me wrong. There are real issues that should be discussed with regard to the cruise industry. These issues include concerns of wage equity, labor conditions such as length of shift, crowded living conditions on board, and broader concerns such as passenger safety (the prevalence of sexual assaults on board, for example) and environmental compliance issues. These issues, and more, can and should be discussed, but to bring them up on this type of documentary does not make sense.

My other main criticism, and which I feel shows the limitations of this type of “found footage” documentary, pertains to the last sections of the film. I feel that the documentary misses the opportunity to document what exactly happened once the ship arrived into Yokohama. What were the Japanese authorities doing, and how did they (along with Princess Cruises) decide on the mandatory quarantine timeline? Even just a cursory discussion of what quarantine means, along with its history in the maritime industry, would have been helpful in building a baseline of understanding. On the same note, an explanation of how a flight on a military transport plane is different from a commercial flight would have been useful for the viewer.

Likewise, when the case numbers began to increase more quickly, and when symptoms began to get worse, what discussions were happening between the Japanese authorities, Princess Cruises, and with the U.S. government? How was Princess Cruises communicating the situation with the families of guests? How was Princess Cruises communicating the situation with the families of crew members (largely based in Asia and eastern Europe)?

Similarly, what changes can be implemented that will place greater importance on the health and safety of the crew moving forward? And, of the 14 passengers who died, what was their experience in all of this? Exploring the deaths of those who died, as painful as it may be, I feel to be of utmost importance in telling the full story.

The actions of the local authorities and cruise line representatives appeared to be very callous and detached. But as a viewer we of course understand that this is only what the “found footage” tells us. In a traditional documentary the filmmakers would not be reliant on that limited plot device, and they would be given more freedom to provide context via additional research and interviews. The difficult topics would be expanded on, giving the viewer a more complete picture of exactly what happened and how.

In other words, I don’t feel like we got the full story of what happened with the Diamond Princess in The Last Cruise. The film serves as a fine introduction to the topic, and for those who are unfamiliar with the story I can highly recommend this film as a starting point. Perhaps future filmmakers will delve deeper into the tough issues that are raised in the film, and we will gain a better understanding of what exactly went wrong and how we can prevent such tragedies in the future.

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