USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage

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This should have been called USS Indianapolis: Men Of Cloneage, amirite! Coz they all look the same! Seriously, some of the flaws of this movie could have been avoided if they had simply cast some actors with more distinct faces. Throughout the movie I couldn’t tell who was who, which one wanted to marry the blonde, which one was the thief, which one just got eaten etc. In all seriousness, this is a powerful story, one of my favourite true stories of all time actually, and it deserves to be told well. Unfortunately this film doesn’t deliver – its low budget is very noticeable and negative, the performances are forgettable, and too much of the movie is spent attempting to introduce the characters so that we are invested and affected by what comes later – though these early scenes are horribly and confusingly edited in such a way that it simply becomes frustrating and we lose interest. I found myself sadly thinking, just get to the sharks already.

A bit of a personal backstory. When I was young, one of my favourite books was Maneaters by Rupert Matthews. It’s a collection of true stories based on horrific encounters between people and animals – bear and tiger attacks, snakes, sharks etc. One of the stories was about the USS Indianapolis, and that story makes up the bulk of this film. In 1945, the US Military has crafted a couple of atomic bombs and would like nothing more than to drop them on Japan. The A-Team were several decades away, so they decided to send some of the bomb parts via battleship to The Philippines – a mission so secret only the top brass knew about it. The unlucky ship going on this mission was the ship of the title, knowingly being sent into enemy territory without an escort to defend them from submarine attacks which they could not foresee or withstand. They successfully completed their mission, but on the return journey the Indianapolis was spotted by a Japanese sub who torpedoed the hell out of it. Within minutes the ship was in the water. I can’t recall the numbers, but there were over 1100 men on board, and around 900 went into the water. Stranded, cold, and bleeding, with barely any life rafts and thousands of miles of ocean all around them, things were looking bleak. And then the sharks came. And came. And came.

If you don’t think you know the story, you’ve probably heard it famously delivered by Quint in Jaws, thanks to John Milius, Robert Shaw, and Howard Sackler. Yes, Quint tells Brody and Hooper about where one of his scars came from – after he went into the ocean when the Japanese struck. It’s one of the most famous moments in Jaws, chillingly delivered. One of the first stories I ever wrote featured a character haunted by his involvement and memories of the event. I saw Mission Of The Shark when I was young – a TV movie starring Richard Thomas and Stacey Keach, also based on the event and it was then that I learned about the court case aftermath and the dubious plots. Maneaters you see, only focused on the immediate human event – one man’s recollections of what is was like to be trapped, surrounded, and feeling hope ebb away. It’s then that I thought ‘why doesn’t someone famous and powerful actually make a good movie about this?’ When I first heard about Men Of Courage I hoped that movie had finally come, but as reports about the movie, then previews, then reviews came, my hope ebbed too.

The second half of the film is considerably stronger than the first. I was worried it was going to go downhill due to horrible shark effects, but in most cases the sharks are very good. Am I right in saying some were real too? There were some moments which appeared to be ridiculous and not how sharks would actually behave, but on the whole it was fine. The problem is that this section of the movie felt too short. It was low on tension, there wasn’t much emotion, and by that point I didn’t care about most of the characters or differentiate between them. The movie is basically in three large parts, or five smaller chapters – Meeting the team, the mission, the sharks, the court case, the end. I appreciate the attempts to introduce the characters, but as mentioned it simply doesn’t work. Cage’s Captain is really the only character we care for as he is the focal point throughout the five chapters. Cage’s performance is either restrained or flat – it essentially could have been anyone. I appreciate that when making a film like this, you can’t possibly focus on everyone, but you can give us a subset of characters and get us emotionally invested from the outset – make them likable, or real at the very least. Make them stand out, with their own lives, past, fears, and flaws. I’m repeating myself, but the film tries and fails.

To its credit, the film does also show things from the opposing side. We meet several of the Japanese crew and see them as humans forced into a position no-one would ever want to be in. The film neither shies away from pointing the finger of blame squarely at those who actually were to blame. Even though the film essentially ends on a downer, we get some real life footage of the rescue and brief moments from the remaining survivors and other archive footage to re-iterate the courage of those involved. A little over 300 men survived the ordeal.

There was one fantastic moment late in the shark section where the music swells and the camera swings around some of the survivors in long shots to give an eagle eye view of the vastness of their struggle – we see some in rafts, some dead and floating away, some exhausted and gripping on to what they can, and some simply drifting among the ever present shark fins, past caring that they could be the next to succumb. That’s what I want to see – the real struggle, the real pain, and by virtue of surviving, the real courage.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage. Did you enjoy it more than you expected to, or was it another poor attempt at telling a tragic tale?

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