As a longtime defender of Nicolas Cage and his willingness to accept seemingly any leading role that offers him a chance to do something he hasn’t done before, I will be the first to tell you that his latest work, USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage, is a waste of your time. Directed by Mario Van Peebles, the shoddily-crafted retelling of how a group of shipwrecked men fought for survival against sharks and the harsh treatment of mother nature looks cheaper than most made-for-TV movies with an equally lackluster script.
If you have ever seen Jaws then you already know the story of the USS Indianapolis. Charged with discreetly carrying an atomic bomb into enemy territory during the height of World War II, the ship was sunk after an attack from a Japanese submarine. The covert nature of the ship’s mission left the men who survived the sinking ship stranded without help for days, forcing them to float in shark-infested waters while the sun scorched their skin. Men Of Courage tells the before, during, and after of this grueling experience, but because it cannot decide whose story it’s telling or why the film misses countless opportunities for compelling drama.
The two-hour film is split in half by the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The first half, which is the far more excruciating bit to endure, commits large chunks of time to establishing backstories for characters that are largely unidentifiable once the ship begins to sink. There are dance sequences, brawls in alleys filled with white-hatted Navy recruits, and no less than three different narrators telling their motivations and perspectives. If these viewpoints complemented one another the film might have accomplished its goal of adding depth to its characters, but instead the various talking heads come off as an over-explanation for what is a fairly straightforward story of life and loss.
Cage takes on the role of Captain McVay, a tortured soul if there ever was one who is fiercely focused on keeping his men safe. He commands the screen whenever the opportunity presents itself, but for the first time in recent memory the conviction typically found in Cage performances is lost amidst a sea of melodrama and weak supporting characters. Without constant narration his character would appear to have no arc whatsoever until the film’s devastating final moments, and even then the script asks that the audience understand more about the horrors of what has happened than what is actually shown. Tom Sizemore and Thomas Jane also appear, each tasked with supporting Cage’s attempt to carry the film, but the writing leaves them with very little to do aside from convey various looks of fear and confusion.
The other threads in Men Of Courage deal with the men aboard the ship, who rely on their bond with one another to survive, as well as an all-too-brief showcase of life for the Japanese men who hunt the U.S. using submarines. Neither one goes anywhere worthy of note.
The film’s greatest fault, aside from weak characters, is the use of special effects that would be laughable even if seen in a made-for-TV movie from the dawn of the new millennium. The budget for USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage was reportedly $40 million, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at any one sequence in the film. Explosions come and go with an aesthetic that brings to mind copy/pasted gifs from outdated video games, and the various vessels shown each look like they could have used a few more hours of rendering to be completed. The fact that this movie was not left on the cutting room floor in its entirety is kind of inexplicable.
I can only describe the way I felt while watching Cage and Sizemore try their best to save Mario Van Peebles’ USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage as horrified disappointment. I tried my hardest to will myself into my television, if only so I could beg those two screen veterans to walk off set and never look back. There isn’t a frame of this film that I would deem worthy of recommendation, and based on the quiet VOD release it received last week it looks like most will never know this atrocity ever happened. We may live in an age where streaming services make it possible for people to discover films they otherwise would have missed, but USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage deserves to be missed.