Limelight for the Coast Guard
We all know the drill. Directors, actors, and screenwriters go to "boot camps," interview experts, and coordinate their celluloid efforts with military public affairs offices. But despite their efforts, they never seem to get things right.
With the force of the Bering Sea's 20-foot waves, The Guardian , starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, shatters that stereotype. All at once, the story of U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers is the finest portrayal of military service culture since Top Gun , the best sea service film since the 1950s, and the greatest movie about the Coast Guard ever. In the opening act, Senior Chief Ben Randall (Costner), a legend within the Rescue Swimmer community, loses his wife, crew, and job within a few days. As rehabilitation, Randall is sent to "A School"—the Coast Guard's 17-week course in survival training and helicopter rescue—as an instructor. There, he meets Jake Fischer (Kutcher), whose brash, iconoclastic energy masks a painful secret not revealed until the latter half of the movie. You'll have to see it to find out.
Although the heart of the story is the mentor-trainee relationship between Randall and Fischer, screenwriter Ron Brinkerhoff brilliantly weaves dozens of subplots into the film. Each adds richness, texture, and authenticity to the portrait. In July 2002, Brinkerhoff—whose idea inspired the movie—pitched and sold the concept to Walt Disney Pictures. "I think it's one of the most underappreciated branches of the military," he said at the time. The focus on Rescue Swimmers seems to symbolize the "Coasties'" struggle to gain respect in the larger military community. Of 35,000 men and women in the U.S. Coast Guard, fewer than 300 serve as Rescue Swimmers. The attrition rate of the training is well over 50 percent, making the swimmers comparable to Navy SEALs or Force Reconnaissance Marines within the littoral service. Unlike other recent military-themed films, the producers refused to move forward until securing the Coast Guard's full cooperation. The service offered up facilities, personnel, and equipment and permitted observation of dozens of rescues. From the Rescue Swimmers' A School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to remote outposts such as Kodiak, Alaska, Brinkerhoff plumbed the depths of the service's soul.
And it shows. From the acerbic humor of the senior enlisted to the stay-in-or-get-out decisions that every lifer encounters, The Guardian nails the subtleties. When a helicopter crashes, an off-screen voice in the combat operations center commands an underling to "start the mishap checklist." The frustrated spouse seeking meaning amidst the 24/7 military world, the alpha male headquarters instructor bristling at the salty grunt newcomer usurping his authority, and the female recruit making it in an all-male world are all authentically portrayed.
The bar scenes alone—particularly when the Rescue Swimmers face down the U.S. Navy—are worth the price of the ticket, even if the senior chief's fraternal solution to the problem seems a bit unrealistic. Not only does The Guardian get the culture right, but the action scenes are as gripping as any actual rescue. "I'm getting goosebumps because this is so real," said Aviation Survival Technician First Class Robert Watson after looking at the wave tank where the rescue scenes were filmed. Watson was one of three Rescue Swimmers who served as consultants during production. "The commitment to doing the movie correctly was phenomenal," he said. "The way they bent over backwards to represent us in a true way was awesome."
The Guardian is an oblique love story, one that only those who have given up marriages and families to stand on the bridge of a destroyer in a squall or inside a concrete Iraqi hovel in a firefight can understand. Although leading ladies Sela Ward (Helen Randall) and Melissa Sagemiller (Emily) have less time on the stage, their presence is strong enough to exert off-screen influence on their characters.
Oscar-winner Kevin Costner turns in a terrific performance as the aging rescuer Randall, and Neal McDonough ( Minority Report, Band of Brothers ) is memorable as Randall's fellow instructor and antagonist. But Ashton Kutcher's brilliance is the real surprise. Known primarily for juvenile, jackass-like roles in movies ( Dude, Where's My Car? ), TV shows ( Punk'd by MTV), and as the husband of actress Demi Moore, Kutcher is convincing as the protégé, Jake Fischer, who yearns for Randall's acceptance.
According to the production notes, Kutcher devoted himself intensely to the role. By the end of his training, the actor had passed the same tests required of Rescue Swimmers. Coast Guard consultants even said that if Kutcher had more time and opportunity to train, he appeared to have the skills to join their ranks. That's high praise from three senior enlisted men. While inferior military movies ( Jarhead ) remain mired in Holden Caulfield-like angst, The Guardian shows us people on screen that sea service professionals might see at work each day. The ordinary is fresh and alive, and we are reminded—poignantly with occasional references to Hurricane Katrina—of the meaning of our profession.
"These guys go out and risk their own lives for complete strangers," said Costner, referring to Rescue Swimmers. "That's something that only human beings do for one another—it's really one of those things that can make us proud of who we are." Regarding pride, The Guardian 's cast and crew can say the same thing. The movie deserves every award it will receive. See it as soon as you can.
Mr. Danelo is a 1998 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and was commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps. A combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he is the author of Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2006), and the editor of U.S. Cavalry ON Point ( www.uscavonpoint.com ).