Film Review: ‘USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage’

USS Indianapolis trailer
Courtesy of Hannibal Classics Films

A World War II epic about the cruiser that carried the A-bomb, and was disastrously torpedoed, never finds its dramatic life.

One sign of an abysmal script is that a character will say something based on information it sounds like he acquired… by reading the script. In “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” (a title Ayn Rand would have rejected for being too stolidly Olympian), it’s 1945, and Charles McVay (Nicolas Cage), the captain of the USS Indianapolis, is ordered to set sail on a highly classified mission. His ship will be carrying a special cargo, one he is told could wind up saving millions of American lives. To which he responds, “Does this have something to do with the Manhattan Project?” The mission, of course, does have something to do with the Manhattan Project, but that’s the sort of line that an instructor in freshman screenwriting class would have crossed out with a bright-red felt-tip marker. It’s clunky and amateurish — way too obviously expository. It’s the sound of a whole lot of people laboring to put together a big-scale movie without the right tools.

The saga of the USS Indianapolis must have sounded, on paper, like it was destined to push “commercial” historical-hero buttons. In July 1945, the ship set sail for the U.S. air base at Tinian carrying the components of the first atomic bomb. Ordinarily, a heavy cruiser like the Indianapolis would have had an escort — a fleet of destroyers sailing right in front of it, as “blockers” to intercept enemy submarines. This time, though, the ship traveled solo to maintain secrecy. The mission went off without a hitch, but on July 19, 1945, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine in the Philippine Sea, and it sank almost instantly. Several hundred men perished, and the rest of the nearly thousand survivors were cast into the sea in lifeboats and makeshift rafts, where they had to fend off injury, disease, and sharks.

At last, we come to the magic word: Sharks. World War II movies, even when they’re as mired in the blood and muck of battle as “Saving Private Ryan” or “Hacksaw Ridge,” tend to be exceedingly high-minded combat spectacles. “USS Indianapolis” is dunked in a certain boilerplate reverence for the Greatest Generation, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the movie feels, at its core, like it was greenlit because its army of executive producers — there are 24 of them — were sold on the notion that it was going to be “Jaws” meets “Hell in the Pacific.” If it were actually an exciting thriller (historical gravity be damned!), there’d be little to complain about, but the director, the eclectic veteran Mario Van Peebles (“New Jack City,” “Panther,” “Badasssss!”), is literally out of his depth. He spends most of “USS Indianapolis” trying to manage the logistics of a movie about a ship that blasts apart, with nothing to hold the men — or story — together after that. The shark stuff isn’t suspenseful; it’s scrappy and B-movie derivative. Once the ship sinks, we’re stranded for what feels like an eternity with a bunch of actors straining to create drama without a good line of dialogue among them.

The whole film seems to have been assembled out of producers’ pitch points — as in, WWII is still “hot,” and the Indianapolis saga is a ready-made disaster movie, like “Titanic” crossed with “They Were Expendable.” That the film is opening in theaters next Friday, just one week after “Hacksaw Ridge,” could be a coincidence, or a case of the producers thinking that they could piggyback on the anticipated success of Mel Gibson’s movie. The truth, though, is that the story of the Indianapolis is such a cataclysmic downer that the only way to make an effective movie out of it would have been to create a slate of compelling characters. And the script, by Cam Cannon and the film’s producer, Richard Rionda Del Castro, is so overstated yet threadbare that there isn’t a person onscreen who commands our interest or empathy. They’re just stick figures in ’40s wartime regalia embodied by actors who come off as woefully contemporary. The one exception is Tom Sizemore, who’s been let out of his cabinet of disgrace to take on a role as the ship’s veteran mate. He does a grizzled seabee routine — he’s like a grownup Dead End Kid — that reminds you why he’s a talented actor. Then he gets his lower leg blown off, at which point any hints of precision or personality disappear from the performance.

It’s probably time that critics stopped giving Nicolas Cage a reflexive poke for his glowering hambone performances — because, frankly, he’s now toning it down. In “USS Indianapolis,” Cage tries to get mileage out of his ironic understatement of clichés like “Full speed ahead!” His Capt. McVay holds what’s left of his men together, and then, when the hellish ordeal is over, he’s called up on charges, because the government, dealing with the worst disaster in U.S. Naval history (apart from Pearl Harbor), needs a scapegoat. There’s a good scene near the end, when McVay, after his court-martial trial, has an emotional conversation with Hashimoto (Yutaka Takeuchi), the commander of the Japanese destroyer that torpedoed him. They both think they have something to apologize for, and you’re struck by how well the scene plays (Cage’s tears are totally convincing), because it’s the first scene in the movie that does. “USS Indianapolis” is a World War II “epic” that’s overscaled yet underimagined. It’s a tale of survival that never provides the audience with a basic entry point into how and why we should care.

Film Review: 'USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage'

Reviewed on-line, Oct. 31, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production

A Saban Films release of a USS Indianapolis, Hannibal Classics production. Producers: Richard Rionda Del Castro, Michael Mendelsohn. Executive producers: Patricia Eberle, Cam Cannon, Timothy Patrick Cavanaugh, William W. Wilson III, William V. Bromiley Jr., Shanan Becker, Ness Saban, Jamal Sannan, Mariusz Lukomski, Yan Fisher Romanovsky, Sean Leigh Hart, Frederico Lapenda, Vladimir Fernandes, Claiton Fernandes, Euzebio Munhoz Jr., Balan Melarkode, Lindsey Roth, Dylan McGinty, Kristy Eberle, Mike Nilon, Robert Nau, Raymond Hamrick, Martin J. Barab, Dama Claire.

Crew

Director: Mario Van Peebles. Screenplay: Cam Cannon, Richard Rionda Del Castro. Camera (color, widescreen): Andrzej Sekula. Editor: Robert A. Ferretti.

With

Nicolas Cage, Tom Sizemore, Thomas Jane, James Remar, Matt Lanter, Brian Presley, Cody Walker, Yutaka Takeuchi, Adam Scott Miller, Craig Tate, Johnny Wactor.

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  1. Patricia L Roach says:

    I think your dead wrong and extremely harsh and insulting. Good thing I don’t read your reviews anyway. My first and last trip to Variety page. I thought it gave well deserved recognition to great men. I thought Mr. Peebles did a great job, as well as the cast. Typical commentary from the regular “experts”. If it doesn’t have sex or senseless violence, it’s a bad movie. I loved it.

  2. Sam says:

    I was excited about watching this film as I have seen a familiar documentary so when the film was released I got very excited especially knowing that Nicholas Cage is one of the main characters. Except. This film was very disappointing. Poor story line – similar love story as to pearl harbour almost too identical which wasn’t necessary. Also the fakeness of when the sharks attacked. You don’t need computerised images of sharks coming out to attack like they did. It looked too fake because they wouldn’t attack like that.. and you could tell it was computerised.
    Anyway. I felt quite embarrassed watching it and felt very disappointed as I thought the effects would be fantastic and realiatic like pearl harbour but I guess I was wrong in thinking it was going to be a big hit blockbuster movie. This still doesn’t make the real life story true to what really happened that year although the story was there but i thought this woukd tell the proper truelife story of what happened and showed how many days they were actually out fighting to survive and explained what happened when they got rescued and what happened next. Not interested in some copycat love story and quincincidently she also gets pregnant and he takes on his dead best mates baby. This was very poorly done!!!

  3. Colin says:

    He’s reviewing a movie folks. He’s not criticizing the brave men of the USS Indianapolis. Learn to differentiate the two. Bottom line: The movie disappoints because it had so much potential to be good but falls flat and that takes nothing away from the actual events

  4. zeeter3 says:

    I literally laughed at the shark attacks. It felt wrong, but the cgi was so awful as to be comical. It reminded me of Sharknado.

    I’ve done a lot of research on this topic ever since reading Terror at Sea back in high school. This movie does not give justice to its subject matter. They spared every expense to make this horrible movie that could have been so memorable. Right now all I can remember is the comical cgi shark attacks. I’m surprised Cage attached his name to it.

  5. Pete says:

    @Steve I did watch the movie and I think Jamie’s comment was right on point. The story is of these courageous men and their Captain and how they were put in harms way by the very military brass that then decided that the Captain should be “thrown under the buss” to protect their own butts from being found out how badly they sealed the USS Indianapolis’ fate by sending them back out a second time without normal protection.
    Jamie, I’m sorry for your loss and then the humiliation all of the men and their families must have felt when their captain was prosecuted. When they all should have been praised for they part they all played in ending that war. God Bless!

  6. Jamie says:

    I’m a niece of one of the men that died on the USS Indianapolis, I think it wise that you apologize to all the families you so rudely offended. You had no regard to any of our feelings. No, I have not seen the movie, however it does not discount the fact of your uncouth review.

    • Jamiesucks says:

      Jamie I didn’t read your review but I think you should still apologise for your rude opinions.

    • Steve says:

      Jamie, Maybe you should watch the film before you open your cock holster claiming to be offended. This film was shit, just shit. It was not a story to do the men aboard justice and that should be what upsets you, not this on point review.

    • Donna says:

      So right Jamie.
      I thought the film was good. Bottom line is, it educated me to the sacrifice, of the men who lived through the horror. Something, I believe the reviewer couldn’t even begin to relate, or did relate to.
      So to all of the men who served on the USS Indianapolis…Thank You men and God Bless!

  7. Martie says:

    Mr. Owen Gleiberman your comments on this movie are both heartless and and hurtful instead of being so concerned with steller dialogue maybe consider the lives of those lost in this tragedy some who were only nineteen years of age and the family members that were left behind with no bodies to be able to bury ,now is there reason for empathy and a reason why you should care now. Maybe next time before you review a movie of this type of historical bearing you might do further in-depth research to the magnitude of the true story. And family members at least like to see that their family members suffering be acknowledged whether it be A or B movie

  8. Conner Bear says:

    What did you mean when you referred to Tom Sizemore as a Dead me Kid?

  9. Patrick Tierney West Babylon NY says:

    The review could have referenced the actual JAWS movie as Robert Shaw’s character Capt Quint told the USS Indianapolis tale so vividly. It is arguably one of the greatest acting scenes of all time and has piqued my interest in this film.

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