USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage Blu-ray Review
Like most people under the age of 50 (I’m actually older) I learned of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and it’s tragic aftermath through Robert Shaw’s haunting monologue in the film JAWS. Written by a combination of playwright Howard Sackler, screenwriter Carl Gottlieb and Shaw himself, it is often cited as the best scene in the film. The revelation of the sinking, and its aftermath, horrified filmgoers. Unbeknownst to JAWS novel author Peter Benchley, who was unaware of the entire story, the son of his housekeeper had perished in the sinking. The Monday after the film JAWS opened she did not come to work. When Benchley contacted her she told him that her son had been on board the ship but that only in seeing the film did she learn how he had died.
The story has always seemed like one that would lend itself to a movie. According to the book “Jaws 2: The Making of the Hollywood Sequel” (and I apologize for the shameless plug since I co-wrote the book) when approached for a story for what would become JAWS 2, Howard Sackler proposed the story of the Indianapolis, though the idea was eventually rejected. Finally, seven decades after the ship was torpedoed, a film has been made. And it’s not as bad as I expected it to be.
For those unaware, the film begins in 1944, where Captain Charles McVay (Cage, very good here) is guiding his ship through an air to ship battle with the Japanese. Succeeding in his mission, the next year McVay is called to Washington and told of his next assignment. He and his crew have been chosen to deliver parts and the uranium needed to complete the first Atomic Bomb to Tinian Island. Due to the nature of the mission, rather than being accompanied by the usual compliment of “blocking” ships he must sail alone. We learn that in the past, when a torpedo has been spotted in the water, a ship could try many things to offset the damage. But recently the Japanese submarines have been firing “Kaiten” torpedoes. These weapons are manned. That’s right, there is a little guy inside the torpedo who, if the shape begins evasive maneuvers, can steer the torpedo towards its. Hit the target, and you’ve died an honorable death. Miss it, and you eventually suffocate and spend the rest of eternity at the bottom of the ocean.
The Indianapolis completes its mission and leaves Tinian to join up with the rest of the fleet. However, since the Indianapolis isn’t supposed to be at Tinian Island, McVay is ordered once again to travel without an escort. Unfortunately the Japanese submarine I-58 puts an end to the journey.
Let me start by saying that, as someone who still considers the film JAWS to be the greatest film ever made 40 years after I first saw it, I dreaded having to watch this film. And, as someone who has had the extreme honor of meeting survivors from the sinking of the Indianapolis, I also dreaded watching this film. Would it be respectful? Would it just be a bunch of guys in the water being eaten by sharks with no emotional investment? Would Nic Cage be in “crazy guy” mode and wrestle a shark to the death? Yes, no and no.
I give much credit to director Van Peebles who, depending on which ending you saw, either was killed or survived being eaten by a great white shark in JAWS THE REVENGE. He has bookended the film with a strong story of young men going off to war and dealing with the consequences of their actions. There is the young sailor whose fiancé’s family feels he isn’t good enough for. There is the squabbling between black and white sailors, equal to serve but not in each other’s eyes, there is the young gambling hustler who is hiding a secret and the young junior officer who everyone will come to hate. Their stories are set up well and you genuinely hope things go well for them when you know, of course, what’s about to happen.
It is when the ship is torpedoed and the men go into the water that it becomes overwrought. After having telegraphed the upcoming carnage through shots filmed through hanging shark jaws or members of the crew looking at pictures of sharks, the sailors now find themselves in the water with the swimming killers. Though the survivors identified the sharks as mostly white tips and tiger sharks that attacked them, it is, indeed, the great white that causes most of the trouble here. A quick shout out to the company that made the animatronic creations because they are amazing, swimming smoothly between the men as well as underwater. The attacks are quick, with men either violently being pulled under water or with the occasional shark lunging out of the water. It is the lunging that bothered me, because they always seem to stop in a freeze-frame rather than make contact. It is also here that all of the standard tropes are brought out. The officer everyone hates orders the sailors out of rafts, telling them that rafts are just for injured men “and officers.” There is the young man who, just before he gets eaten, tells the others that he’s going to make it because “I promised my momma I’d come home safe.” And there is the strong, veteran sailor (Sizemore) who clutches his amputated foot to his chest in the raft, screaming through the pain because, damn it, he can. It’s basically the same character Sizemore played in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN only more over the top.
Once the men are rescued the film turns to the aftermath, including the whitewashing court martial that McVay faces, and the story becomes interesting again. The details of the court martial are quite interesting and unprecedented and, again, Cage handles the role’s challenges well.
If you’ve ever wondered about the story behind Quint’s hatred, and don’t feel like picking up a book, you could do worse than giving this film a watch.
Video: The film is presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio and is somewhat subdued visually. The various archival footage that is worked in is of good quality.
Audio: The soundtrack is presented with a DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track and is well mixed. Even during the chaotic scenes of explosions and shark attacks the musical score is clear and not overbearing.
The Making of “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” (33:16): A well put-together behind the scenes look at the making of the film, detailing the process (writer to producer to director to cast) in which a film gets made. Many shout-outs to JAWS, of course. Best parts are when Nic Cage meets either actual survivors or their families (there are actually (2) cast members whose grandfathers were on the ship). His genuine reverence for them and their story is touching. When I lived in Baltimore my roommate was a waiter at a high-end restaurant. While filming a movie there, Nic Cage frequented the place and my roomie waited on him several times. He commented on how friendly and genuine Cage was and this featurette seems to bear that out.