Saturday Matinee 2013 038: The Guardian (2006)

the-guardian-posterThe Guardian is one of the best movies ever about the Coast Guard. That’s true in part because there are hardly any movies about the Coast Guard (there was a B-Movie called Fighting Coast Guard in, if we recall right, 1951. So Hollywood hasn’t quite burnt out the theme). The Coast Guard-like rescue attempt in the movie The Perfect Storm was actually carried out by the Air National Guard; we knew Rick Smith, the PJ who didn’t make it, in real life. He used to come to the range with us, because he liked to shoot, and we welcomed him and his friends, because the Air Force gave them all the best toys when we were making do with M16A1s.

But it’s also a decent movie. It’s not a juxtaposition flick, it’s not the height of Hollywood auteur-itude, and the critics hated it like Osama hated getting blown to Hell by infidels. But it’s a good watchable film with decent acting, which we like around here; the scenario isn’t wildly implausible, which we also like; and it treats its subject matter, the lifesaving Rescue Swimmers, men (and to our surprise, women) who hold the Aviation Survival Technician rating, with a respect bordering on reverence. And we really like a little respect around here.

The HH-60 is not the perfect airframe for rescue; it's compromised by its tactical-transport roots. But it does a star turn in The Guardian.

The HH-60 is not the perfect airframe for rescue; it’s compromised by its tactical-transport roots. But it does a star turn in The Guardian.

The movie opens with beautiful underwater video of a surging sea and a sinking sailing yacht. Kevin Costner’s voice recounts the legend of the Guardian: people rescued from the sea swear that someone was there, lifted them up, pressed them not to give in. Suddenly the camera bursts to the surface in a nightmarish gale, and you are a spectator at a technically challenging, physically brutal, and psychologically disturbing rescue attempt. What sort of men are these, that free-drop from a safe, warm helicopter into the cold, surging sea? The Guardian could tell you, but mostly it shows you.

Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is an over-the-hill living legend among rescue swimmers.

To us, the training scenes were the most interesting. There was a good dynamic between the stars onscreen.

To us, the training scenes were the most interesting. There was a good dynamic between the stars onscreen. (This one doesn’t embiggen).

Everyone, but he, knows he is past his prime and ought to hang it up. But he can’t; he needs it even more than it needs him. Injured during the successful rescue of a couple from a sinking yacht, Ben is ordered to recuperate and sent to the Rescue Swimmer training school — to heal up, and as his captain says, “download” some of the experience he’s earned. Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) is a young man from a Coast Guard town. He was a student athlete and had Ivy League scholarships; but for reasons he is not forthcoming with, he enlists in the AST program. Learning that some guy named Ben Randall holds school swimming records of many years’ standing, Fischer announces that he’s going to break them.

Randall is standing right behind him when he says that. We can relate.

The movie rocks along, driven by the technical challenges of Rescue Swimmer A-School (Swimmers actually complete several schools before they’re turned loose; the story takes some liberties with the technicalities to keep the action flowing) and the complications of Ben’s and Jake’s relationships, both with each other and with their respective female entanglements.

A Comparison you may Know

We kept seeing echoes and hints of the Clint Eastwood vehicle Heartbreak Ridge (a Saturday Matinee selection in May, 2012). Sometimes the parallels were glaring, as when Ben tries to sort his relationship problems out with he help of a friendly barkeeper (singer Bonnie Bramlett, cast to perfection). You have the old guy/young guy dynamic, the youth who has to conform to institutional mores, the greybeard who has to instill in the youth the desire to do so. You’re never in any doubt as to whether the young guy will get himself sorted out and be a worthy successor to the older fellow, but the how of it is just as interesting as it was when the old guy was John Wayne as Sgt. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima. Like Heartbreak Ridge, The Guardian is not ever going to be film-school study material, but if somebody remakes this thing again in 20 years with Marine Snipers or a Navy Submarine School setting, they’ll entertain people (as The Guardian did) and make money (ditto).

It's an intergenerational buddy film. And lives depend on them.

It’s an intergenerational buddy film. And lives depend on them.

Another comparison some will want to make is to Top Gun. The setting, in challenging training, and the brash young co-star are similar, but Costner is much more front and center than the mentors in the old jet opera, making it more of an intergenerational buddy film than a one man against-the-odds-and-the-world evolution.

Nowadays, you don’t have to wait for an older movie (2006 seems like just yesterday, but this is seven years old now) to come up, cut to ribbons and studded with commercials, on the tube. For a couple of bucks you can rent the movie, there’s Netflix and cable on demand. Just the scenes of helicopter and swimmer operations out of Kodiak station make it crystal clear that there are Americans right now facing scarier and more powerful enemies than any that ever picked up an RPG or buried an IED.

Acting and Production

If you don't like Kevin Costner, this star turn may change your mind. A very different Waterworld.

Very different from the other Waterworld. If you think you don’t like Kevin Costner, this star turn may change your mind. 

The acting is good enough that we never thought, “Wow. Costner is really acting here!” He’s good as Ben Randall; he might have been a few years too old to be credible in the role but he made it up with a visible athleticism. (We didn’t think he was acting in the hypothermia scene… we think he, and the other actors, was actually freezing his nads off). Kutcher was credible as the almost insufferably cocky Jake Fischer. But the really delightful performances come from two groups in the supporting cast. One is the professional actors: those include Neil McDonough, in an incredible turn as Chief Jack Skinner. McDonough’s expressions, catlike physicality, and intense blue-eyed stare will have you guessing, just as his character keeps the candidates guessing, whether Skinner is sadistic by nature or because he believes that is the way to harden the swimmers. Brian Geraghty is dead-on as Hodge, a candidate who keeps getting recycled in training, but is too tough, or maybe he’s too dumb, to quit.

In addition to the pros in the cast, the film benefits from the on-screen talents of a number of Coast Guard professionals, including pilots, senior officers and operations petty officers, and actual A-school instructors. Some of them have quite a lot of native talent (or somebody did a lot of retakes), because they hold their own with the seasoned screen stars. They also appear in an informative but too short documentary video on the DVD. Another extra we enjoyed was a set of cut scenes; while we understand why they went, they did give more depth to some characters.

The film is beautiful and colorful; the full majesty of storms is shown, but they manage to do it without turning everything into a grey mishmash. If you’ve ever been in a small craft in a real hurricane (we don’t recommend it), it’s like being inside a washing machine hooked up to a bulldozer engine. Yet, they manage to get the power across without compromising their ability to shoot the picture. How? We’re not sure. We’ll have to leave the producers and director some magic. A couple of pictures here (from Wikipedia) are part of the methodology, but there’s a lot of craft behind that turbulent action on the screen.

Accuracy and Weapons

We’re going to handle this back-end-first. There are no weapons; while the Coasties have been known to gun up for Homeland Security (i.e. drug interdiction) or Navy support missions, they mostly deal with maritime safety, doing everything from the action-guy rescues shown in this movie to the routine but vital work of maintaining buoys and other aids to navigation. “The navy doesn’t like us,” Ben Randall observes between bar fights, “because we don’t have their combat orientation.” The sailors who start the fight call the Coast Guardsmen “puddle pirates.” (Do the Navy and USCG actually still get in bar fights or is this Hollywood license?)

We have no inside knowledge of Rescue Swimmer A-School, but it seems to have much in common with other special operations schools, at least in its gut-check phase. No doubt real ASTs would find points to quibble with in the film that are invisible to us in our ignorance of their operations. But we bet they’re glad to have been portrayed so respectfully; the movie must have been good for recruiting — not that the service needs great numbers of ASTs.

If you want more information, here’s a Coast Guard overview of the real-world program, and an article explaining how the program was created in the aftermath of a sea disaster in 1983.

We have spent some time in boats and aircraft, including time in all of the above in weather, and the weather and sea effects used, a combination of special effects such as a wave pool, and digital CGI effects, are superb.

The bottom line

The Guardian is an exciting, well-acted and -directed, film about the least-known and smallest of America’s national services. It’s a little surprising that no one made a film about these rescue swimmers before, but fortunately these guys did not make a botch of it.

People who watch this movie will probably either wish that they were rescue swimmers, or be very glad that they are not. And everyone should be glad that they are out there, every day and night, “That others may live.” Like our own field, Special Forces, it’s one of those rare niches in the military: a minority group you can actually join. We’re a little relieved that we can just learn a little about it by following Jake Fischer along on his

12 thoughts on “Saturday Matinee 2013 038: The Guardian (2006)

  1. Aesop

    Concur.

    I blog-reviewed it locally when it came out.

    It was well done without being epic, and under-appreciated when it came out, amidst a crop of Hollywood tripe mainly notable for concentrating on painting everyone in the military as PTSD-scarred baby-rapists on their best days.

    And yes, it’s Heartbreak Ridge (except better, since the plot in this go-around is actually believable and possible outside of Fantasyland. Sorry, Clint, but your outting was a comedy farce.).
    Perhaps a closer comparison is Sands Of Iwo Jima, which is at least as far back as this kind of film traces its cinematic lineage.

    And it’s exactly the kind of film release that used to be used to fill a theatre on a Saturday afternoon. Given what Hollyweird squirts out most weeks, thank heavens for DVDs and home theatre set-ups to enjoy movies like this. Plus the refreshments at home don’t require a mortgage to finance.

    1. Hognose Post author

      It’s sad because there’s so much talent and from what little I’ve seen of the industry, a lot of them work like dogs for an assistant director or associate producer credit that only their relatives will ever see.

      I can’t figure out why the writers run scripted TV and are nobody in movies, but someone probably has. I think the union (guild) has the same bad effects here it has elsewhere.

      It’s probably because behind-the-scenes money men and middlemen seem to run things. Music is even worse. The LA labels require a new act to have legal representation — “for your own good.” But again, “for your own good,” you have to pick “your” lawyer from a list they give you of “entertainment” lawyers — people who are, of course, 100% dependent on the good will of the conglomerate lawyers who send them 100% of their business…. forceful advocates for the new kid, they are not.

      You always hear of bankruptcy stalking some spendthrift or out-of-fashion star of film or music, but ever hear about a manager, studio executive or label head going paws-up financially? They enrich themselves whether the chumps making the entertainment, or the chumps that are stockholders in their opaque corporations, win or lose.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Let me add, they aren’t even any good at exploiting the natural long tail of their products. I was looking for an Earl Stanley Gardner series that ran for one year, called The Court of Last Resort. It was the sort of “reenacted reality show” that would become later scripted TV like Dragnet. It’s interesting because Gardner, who was a criminal lawyer, actually organized a group of high-powered lawyers and investigators of the same name, who relooked criminal cases. They sprung a few innocents from Death Row, and confirmed the guilt of a few others, who then went to the chair or the gas chamber. (50 years ago, even California took out the trash). The shows were taped for rebroadcast, but only rebroadcast once, never syndicated, and never, AFAIK, put on videotape. Seven episodes have surfaced; 19 more remain in the vaults. I’m not the only one. There are even third parties who want to put the set together and are even willing to restore, digitize and even colorize the series. Response from LAL “meh. Hey, the new twilight film is coming out.”

        Despite their best efforts, they occasionally produce something I want to see. Couple of them coming up. Rush, Gravity, Capt. Phillips, one or two more. I’m a little concerned that Phillips will turn out to be big bad SEALS murdering poor misunnerstood peace-loving AK-toting skinnies. If I was king, any survivors in that country would have ionizing radiation to deal with, along with all their other woes.

        1. Aesop

          This whole “new media” thing still baffles the sh*t out of most of the higher-ups.
          They like to make people think they’re all tech-savvy, but if it weren’t for their hipster assistants handing them their iPads and iPhones, they’d still have VHS players on their back desks constantly flashing “12:00” in their offices because learning how to set the time would take English reading comprehension and a handle on their ADHD.

          With films, most of the studios have belatedly realized they can print DVDs on demand and clean up tidily on obscurata, so at long last they mostly do.

          TV, on the other hand, is a wasteland, because they taped to fragile media, thinking accurately that compared to then-cinema what they were doing was dreck; but not realizing that when compared to now-TV it was works of art.

          And there is no instrument yet invented that can accurately determine the depths of stupidity in corporate Hollywood. There was talk of using Navy deep-diving submersibles to plumb to the bottom, but as they came to understand the problem, even folks like Robert Ballard said “I’m out. I got nothing for this.”

  2. GBS

    “Do the Navy and USCG actually still get in bar fights or is this Hollywood license?”

    No…this is pure Hollywood bullshit. The clichéd inter-service bar fight REALLY bugged me. I spent nearly 24 years in the Navy, and I never saw ANY overt hostility towards any member of any other service in any venue.

    Navy people, officer or enlisted, don’t typically go to civilian bars in uniform. A Navy Captain as fat, old, and decrepit looking as the one in that bar scene borders on the absurd. I’m sure that 30 or 40 years ago you could find a Navy Chief fighting in a bar, but today, it would be unusual. A Navy Chief behaving like the knuckle-draggers depicted in the movie wouldn’t be a Chief for very long. That fat old Captain would also find himself in deep trouble for allowing enlisted sailors to behave like that.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Hey, somebody has to be the bad guy. You swabs were elected.

      I think there was a bar fight era but it was pretty much before our time. Now in the Army it’s an “alcohol related incident” and has career repercussions, very serious ones for an NCO or an officer. It’s not quite as bad as it was for a while in the 1980s, where COs would delegate an aide to circulate among the haunts and count officers’ drinks. One such officer was thoroughly duct-taped and left in the trunk of his own car overnight by some of the Group’s NCOs as a courtesy (an unasked-for one) to their team leaders. The aide found reasons to demur from further drink-counting activity after that. The NCOs’ identity was an open secret.

      I have seen some Air Force units where drinking pilots are the norm, and a couple that have clandestine bars in one of the hangars. But they are far more circumspect about it than in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course in the 1950s they probably killed 1000 aircrew a year in mishaps! (The Navy pranged a few planes back then, too). It’s a pretty big deal for another-service guy to get bar privileges in a squadron or wing’s secret bar. First rule of fight club, right?

      In SF, the heavy boozers seem to gravitate together so you have boozer teams, abstemious-serious teams, athletic teams, etc. The team mostly takes on the personality of the team sergeant even as it follows the team leader on mission matters. There were guys who found alcohol in Afghanistan, if that’s what they wanted.

      I’m unlikely to meet anybody in a bar these days, but back then, if you ran into other servicemen, it was usually fun to talk to them and see what their lives were like, and usually rounds were bought back and forth. If a fight was brewing it was time to leave before it was “ready.”

      1. GBS

        Yeah, the crackdown on alcohol really accelerated since I left in 2006. Harmless stuff that went on just 10 years ago would be an “alcohol related incident” (at a minimum) today. One can still find small aviator watering holes on bases, but the days of the get-large happy hour were pretty much over by the early 90s. 20+ years ago, it wasn’t all that difficult to find a drink onboard Navy aircraft carriers. A Prowler squadron (the Garudas) made itself famous ~ 1990 for a very well attended and loud stateroom party that ended with much of the wardroom confined to the ship and the squadron becoming unofficially known as the “Margarudas”. The closest thing to a fight I ever encountered was a large drunk fighter guy deciding he wanted to wrestle (with me) during a party in hotel suite in Hong Kong. Me being relatively sober, the take-down was swift and attention-getting. Even better, my CO was in the room, and that did me no harm at all.

  3. Eric

    My 2 Durham on “The Guardian” as both a grad of RSS and a Coastie;

    Best part? When the Chief Skinner (as you mentioned, played brilliantly by Neil McDonough) finally gets Charlie to break his nose to get him under control, and welcomes him to the club a few minutes later.

    Worst part? That the Commandant thought it was an awesome movie, and encouraged everyone to call each other “Guardian” the same way they use “Shipmate” in the Navy. It became the same kind of joke – “Guardian” was what a Senior Officer/NCO called people when he was too important to read their name off of their shirt before yelling at them, i.e. “Hey, Guardian, that rigger’s belt isn’t authorized unless you’re actually performing an LE operation. What’s your Chief’s name?”

    1. Hognose Post author

      Crap. I guess I replied to another post before hitting the button to complete this one, so I get to retype it. Lucky me!

      I too really liked that scene, especially when you don’t know what Skinner is actually going to do. One of the scenes that they cut from the final film, that is on the DVD, shows a great deal of tension between Skinner and Randall. Apparently Randall got what was going to be Skinner’s job.

      In the Marines, it’s “Devil Dog”. It used to be a proud term, but it’s become a sort of a putdown used by highers to step on their lowers. I learned that when I inadvertently used it to address a Marine friend. Ah, the perils of joint operations.

      A peculiarly Army form of retardation is: insistence on capitalizing the word “soldier,” everywhere it appears. It makes one look like someone who never mastered the basic rules of English-language capitalization.

      Thanks for the inside information. The Coast Guard is a little bit of a mystery to me, even though they rescued me from a sinking boat a couple of years ago.

      Forgive me if I don’t call you “Guardian”. I think you’ll get over it….

      1. Aesop

        Devil Dog is only pejorative in context. When the context is a patronizing superior, pretty much everything out of their mouth is a pejorative. Such individuals are the reason the old-time Navy “Rocks & Shoals” regs included “silent insolence” from a subordinate as a court-martial offense.

        Among relative equals no slur is intended nor appends.

        Capitalizing “soldier” hails from the same geniuses who thought the spiffy thing to improve everyone’s self esteem was to hand every swinging Richard a Ranger-black beret.

        One wonders, given the predictable failure of that idea, if the Rangers will now switch from tan back to black again anytime soon.

        1. Hognose Post author

          It hasn’t failed yet, although some have floated the idea of binning the “social promotion” beret and the idea’s been very well accepted. But nothing creates controversy like uniform changes. (Marines don’t always understand that; their noncombat uniform changes about once a century, and their combat uniform changes about three or four times in the same hundred years). It seems very likely that Rick Shinseki did the beret thing precisely to create a shitstorm
          controversy to distract attention from his Army Transformation grand idea that was failing at the time. Then again, his performance as Secretary of the DVA suggests that the Occam’s Razor answer to “why” he does anything, is that he hit the Peter Principle when he rose above company grade.

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