J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 07, 2016

For Veteran’s Day: USS Indianapolis—Men of Honor

There have been a lot of posthumous service medals bestowed in recent years, which maybe isn’t a bad thing, but the Navy has made it pretty dishearteningly clear one of them will absolutely not be the Navy Cross for chaplain Lt. Thomas Conway. According to survivors, he tirelessly swam through shark-infested waters administering spiritual comfort and last rites to the men of the USS Indianapolis. However, the bureaucrats were able to reject a recent petition on technical grounds, allowing them to add further insult to the injury of the 880 fatalities, many of whom possibly could have survived were it not for procedural snafus. The horrific, heroic stories of the heavy cruiser’s captain and crew are told in Mario Van Peebles’ USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (trailer here), which opens this Friday (Veteran’s Day) in New York.

Technically, the Indianapolis’s final mission was an unqualified success. They were delivering parts and uranium for what would be the Little Boy atomic bomb to Tinian in the Marianas. It was a highly classified mission, so they were not allowed destroyer escorts. They made it to their destination safely, but they were forced to fatally push their luck on the unescorted return trip. To make matters exponentially worse, since their mission was off the books, nobody noticed when the Indianapolis failed to arrive home on schedule.

The gist of what happened after the cruiser was struck by multiple torpedoes will be familiar to many from either Doug Stanton’s bestselling nonfiction account or Quint’s monologue in Jaws. Captain Charles Butler McVay would have preferred to go down with his ship, but through a perverse twist of fate, he survived to become the scapegoat. Historians and screenwriters Cam Cannon & Richard Riondo Del Castro agree it was a dubious court martial, especially when some future presidents received medals for losing PT-boats under roughly analogous circumstances.

The Nic Cage renaissance continues with another surprisingly restrained yet deeply tormented performance as CAPT. McVay. Tom Sizemore does his thing as crusty Chief Petty Officer McWhorter and Thomas Jane channels his dashing inner Errol Flynn as seaplane pilot Lt. Adrian Marks. Awkwardly, the two blandly played Seamen rivals competing for the same girl adds a distracting and unnecessary soap opera side show. However, the unexpected soul of the film comes from terrific character actor Yutaka Takeuchi as Mochitsura Hashimoto the future Shinto priest, who (reluctantly) commanded the submarine that sunk the Indianapolis.

Thanks to the humanistic portrayal of Hashimoto, USS Indianapolis celebrates the courage of the officers and crew, while reproaching the injustices done to McVay without demonizing the Japanese people. However, the dehumanizing aspects of the Imperial war machine, particularly the manned Kaiten suicide torpedoes (so rarely seen in cinema), is depicted in no uncertain terms.

Van Peebles marshals the large-scale battle sequences, multiple sub-plots, and fleet of supporting characters fairly effectively. He also manages to racially integrate the Navy three years before Executive Order 9981, which is quite a feat. Still, he conveys a good sense of the realities of service during wartime and the military mindset. Recommended as a cautionary yet patriotic examination of one of the worst Naval tragedies in American history, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage opens this Friday (11/11) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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