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.