In ‘USS Indianapolis’, Real-Life Emotion Elevates a Middle-of-the-Road Script

'USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage' tells the harrowing story of the worst disaster in American naval history.

Nicholas Cage as Captain McVay in USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.
Nicholas Cage as Captain McVay in USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage. Saban Films

Riding in on the heels of Mel Gibson’s magnificent epic Hacksaw Ridge, we now return to the theater of the Pacific in the closing days of World War II for something of a sequel. USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage picks up where Hacksaw Ridge leaves off. In 1945, to get even with Japan for the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent American losses in the Battles of Okinawa, Harry Truman hatched a plan for revenge—to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and ordered the U.S. cruiser Indianapolis on a top-secret mission to deliver pieces of the bombs necessary for the attack to American forces in the Pacific by ship. The cargo was delivered and the mission accomplished, but shortly after leaving Guam, the Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk, costing the lives of 300 people and dumping 900 survivors into the freezing, shark-infested waters of the Pacific Ocean. Alone and unprotected, with none of the usual destroyer escorts to block enemy submarines, the hush-hush voyage of the U.S.S. Indianapolis turned into a suicide mission to equal the kamikaze pilots in the Japanese air force. USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage tells the harrowing story of the worst disaster in American naval history. As a movie, it lacks the unlimited manpower to equal Hacksaw Ridge, but as a dramatic postscript to the factors that led to Japanese surrender, its power and importance are undeniable.

(3/4 stars)

Directed by: Mario Van Peebles
Written by: Cam Cannon and Richard Rionda Del Castro
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Tom Sizemore and Thomas Jane
Running time: 128 mins.

While attempting to bring the doomed sailors on the Indianapolis to life in the mess hall and bunks below deck, the film, like Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), also tries to show the battle from the perspective of the enemy—frightened men, missing their families and dreading the inevitable postwar American retaliation. But the Japanese guilt doesn’t come until late in the film, and it doesn’t take up nearly enough screen time. Meanwhile, the Indianapolis, under the dedicated command of Capt. Charles McVay (Nicolas Cage’s least exaggerated and most concentrated performance in years), goes through the motions of duty—the launching of the Japanese torpedoes, the explosions, the destruction to the engine room, the chaos of men leaping from the decks with their uniforms in flames—all well captured in Mario Van Peebles’ brisk, muscular direction. This is Phase I of the horrors depicted. The second round of shocks begins with the arrival of the great white sharks—on July 30, 1945, the day of the attack, with 900 men still alive and two days of supplies left, ripped apart while they clung to boards, barrels and an occasional overcrowded life boat. The underwater camera angles from below, circling rafts of men singing “Amazing Grace” to the accompaniment of a single harmonica between shark-feeding frenzies, is almost more than you can bear to witness, even though you know the computer-generated sharks are leftovers from Jaws. The terrific cast includes Tom Sizemore, Matt Lanter and James Remar, with a special—if not wasted—contribution by Thomas Jane as the Navy rescue pilot who broke rules and defied orders to get as many men as he could out of the water to safety, exceeding his plane’s weight capacity to do it. Miraculously, 317 men survived overwhelming odds to beat death and defy fate.

An important postscript shows how the government tried to hide the casualties from the press and the American public to save face for taking so many days to search for shipwrecked survivors. In another act of cowardice and shame, in December 1945, still embarrassed by the disaster, the military made Capt. McVay a scapegoat and court-martialed him. What remained of his loyal crew traveled to Washington, D.C., to support their brave commander, and in one of the film’s most moving scenes, Hashimoto, a submarine commander in the Imperial Japanese Navy, arrived to defend him personally. When the two former adversaries salute each other as officers and men, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage achieves the loftier goals its financial limitations otherwise prevent. In the script, by Cam Cannon and producer Richard Rionda Del Castro, the dialogue is so forced and simplistic that the characters rarely have a chance to come alive, but in the postscript, when the actual survivors address the camera, the result is earnest and immediate. Capt. McVay committed suicide in 1968. President Clinton exonerated him of all charges in 2000. Sometimes, in a movie with good intentions, the facts can charge the emotions better than the special effects.

In ‘USS Indianapolis’, Real-Life Emotion Elevates a Middle-of-the-Road Script