Infused with the heartfelt patriotism of a Ford commercial, “Carrier” is a strange bird. Although PBS devotes 10 hours to it, this documentary from Mel Gibson’s Icon Prods. provides a wafer-thin glimpse of life aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier Nimitz, a floating city occupied by 5,000 souls. Lovingly filmed in high definition, the project aspires to be reality TV-meets-“Top Gun,” employing pop-music montages to target a younger (and perhaps more red-state) crowd than PBS normally attracts. Beyond highlighting the crew’s sacrifice, however, the project misfires, too self-consciously stooping to commercial sensibilities in order to conquer.
At times “Carrier” plays like a thinly veiled response to PBS’ conservative critics, admirably putting a human face on American soldiers. The problem is that these carefully manicured portraits seldom escape war-movie cliches, and the glossy photography and song score are so manipulative the effect mostly has as much depth as a “Support the troops” bumper sticker.
A major undertaking scheduled to play across consecutive nights, “Carrier” opens with the Nimitz shipping out to Hong Kong en route to the Persian Gulf as part of a six-month deployment.
The personnel’s average age is 19, and in keeping with their youth they come complete with raging hormones and an assortment of daytime TV-worthy problems: an unplanned pregnancy back home; racial tensions; the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; and a “work hard, play hard” mantra that leads to fraternity-style boozing and occasionally consequences.
In terms of politics, the views expressed are as varied as those back home, ranging from gung-ho support for President Bush to “I really don’t see any reason for us to be here.”
“Carrier” doesn’t whitewash these issues, yet nor does it bring any new insight to them; rather, as structured by director Maro Chermayeff (PBS’ “Frontier House”), the emphasis tilts heavily toward style over substance, with a look and soundtrack modeled after “Top Gun.”
The initial hours convey the drudgery and monotony of being on board, before the pace quickens in hour five, when the Nimitz finally reaches the Persian Gulf. The last two hours, meanwhile, focus largely on the crew’s sacrifices in terms of family — the guilt associated with missed birthdays and anniversaries, and even Navy-sponsored classes on how to behave when reuniting with loved ones.
What’s lacking, especially in the early going, is much narrative momentum beyond the adoring shots of hardware. Much is made of the disproportionate number of men to women, for example, which one crewman rather vividly describes as “seven hot dogs for every one bun.” After that, though, the question of fraternization among personnel (frowned upon by higher-ups) just sort of sits there.
Clearly, the producers have endeavored to offer a snapshot of their service, but because “Carrier” lacks a sharp point of view, there’s a kind of “duh” quality to the results. The producers seem so enamored with the production’s technical aspects and the unprecedented access they were granted as to blunt the storytelling’s edges. And while there are tears aplenty and several genuinely emotional moments near the end, the heavyhanded musical accompaniment proves at best a distraction that comes close to undermining them.
“Support the troops” has become a popular political mantra, tossed about so cavalierly as to render it practically meaningless. Yet while “Carrier” seeks to give that applause-line context, at 10 hours it too often drifts along as aimlessly as a great big boat on a placid sea.