Let’s be very clear—the story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the survivors’ subsequent four day nightmare in shark-infested waters is one of the most compelling survival stories from World War II. It’s the kind of story that begs for cinematic treatment, and it would make a good subject for a filmmaker like Kathryn Bigelow or Peter Berg. The version I am reviewing, however, is directed by Mario Van Peebles, who is not a bad director, but who is WAY outmatched by the material, and also saddled with a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad script (from Cam Cannon and Richard Rionda del Castro). I am going to hammer this movie. Please don’t mistake it for disrespecting the subject, which deserves a helluva lot more.
The movie begins with THREE openings, the THIRD of which involves voice over. Right away I get the feeling I’m in for a rough time because obviously no one has any idea how to begin this movie. (Hint: With the torpedoing of the boat.) We’re introduced to a bunch of interchangeable characters who don’t seem to have names on their last night before shipping out on the USS Indianapolis, which is on a top secret mission to deliver parts for the atom bomb. I kid you not, the white and black crewmen of the Indianapolis start a fight with each other and a fire escape ladder descends as guys leap off it into the fray like they’re the Sharks and the Jets going at it. Had this scene lasted even five seconds longer, there would have been syncopated snapping.
Men of Courage makes the mistake so many disaster/survival movies do in assuming we care about what these people were up to The Night Before. We don’t. We never do. The story of the Indianapolis is that it sinks and a bunch of people get eaten by sharks. Anything that is not 1) sinking, or 2) shark eating is a waste of time. You will not care about any of the people you meet in the first fifty minutes of the movie—which is how long it takes to get to the sinking and the shark eating.
Courage really wants us to invest in a subplot in which two handsome young seamen are in love with the same woman—ahem, the plot of Pearl Harbor—but it is clear that they are 100% f*cking every second they can spare at sea. They give each other soulful looks and listlessly argue over the same woman that neither of them can bear to touch for more than ten seconds, and cling to each other in a life raft, dreaming of impossible futures. Whatever the real story of these two men was, within the movie, they are star-crossed lovers denied their happy ending because a shark eats one of them.
As for Nicolas Cage, on the Nicolas Cage Scale of Batsh*t Crazy Performances, this is about a three. That is to say, it’s only a little bit crazy, because Cage is obviously invested in honoring the skipper of the Indianapolis, Captain Charles B. McVay III. And it is sad, at the end, when he is scapegoated for the disaster, and it’s also sad that his story is wasted on this terrible movie. The craziest performance in the movie, by the way, belongs to Tom Sizemore, who would fit right into the sailor song and dance sequence from Hail, Caesar!.
Nothing goes right in Courage, and I don’t just mean the sharks. The camera meanders aimlessly across scenery, pointing at nothing most of the time, and sometimes even swinging back and forth like this movie was made by oscillating fans. And the shark attacks are totally not scary, which defeats the purpose of making this movie. The reason people remember the Indianapolis—one of literal hundreds of ships sunk during the war—is because of the sharks, so show us some goddamned shark attacks. You don’t need to go for prurient shock value or Tarantino-esque gore, but if all you’re going to do is dump some red food color in a tub and stir it about for ten seconds, why bother. The Shallows isn’t particularly gory—it’s PG-13—but the shark attacks are SCARY because they’re well shot and edited for maximum impact. But the attacks in Courage are edited like the filmmakers are afraid of upsetting us. Spoiler alert—this is an upsetting story.
Courage has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be, which character’s story it wants to tell, or even what story it’s telling in the first place. (Reminder: SHARK ATTACKS.) No one cares about Betty Lou Sue back at home while hundreds of sailors are stranded amid a feeding frenzy. Someday someone should make an actual good movie about the Indianapolis. It’s the kind of story that, in the right hands, could hit the sweet spot between commercial and dramatic appeal. USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, however, is not that movie.