“Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed the passage with you?” Like Walt Whitman, we love to remember our toughest teachers, and we love to see movies about them, too. Even when they’re not that good.
There’s a lot wrong with this film. It shamelessly steals some of the best moments from better movies and even more shamelessly dilutes their power and our memories by not doing them nearly as well. But it delivers on three things: powerful special effects, appealing performers, and, most of all, evocative memories each of us have of the one teacher who showed us we could be — had to be — more than we thought we could.
This is a movie about guys (there are some women here but we don’t see much of them) who save people, guys who go to very scary places to get people out of very scary trouble. But mostly it is a movie about how we make peace with all that is terrible around us and inside us.
Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is the grizzled veteran whose long list of records at the Coast Guard’s training facility for rescue divers still stand. The unofficial number people only whisper, though, is the number of people he is said to have saved. Temporarily assigned to return to “A School” to train the next generation.
For every grizzled veteran, there has to be a cocky hotshot, and this movie’s is high school swim champion Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher). Cue the montage as Jake makes a bet with his friends in a bar that he can pick up a pretty girl (the screenwriter of Top Gun may want to call his lawyer), gets into trouble and nearly gets thrown out and has to prove his commitment (the screenwriter of An Officer and a Gentleman may want to call his lawyer), and then has to apply all that he has learned and all that he has become and all that he wants to be when it comes to the real thing (no lawyers needed here, that one has been used by everybody).
It begins with a terrible chaos above, and then an even more terrible stillness below. It is a rescue operation at sea. Ben does not follow the rules. Sometimes that results in a heroic save. But after it results in terrible tragedy, he is taken out of the water and sent to train the next generation. He is lost in a sea of the spirit. His wife (Sela Ward) has finally had enough of his saying things like, “I’m sorry saving lives doesn’t fit your social calendar” and she has left him. Out of the water, he is not sure who is is.
In Jake and the others, he sees something of himself, maybe a way to rescue someone, maybe a way to rescue himself.
It all rolls out smoothly, if predictably. Costner inhabits the role comfortably and Kutcher shows some movie star sparkle. But Jake’s romance with a pretty teacher has a lot less charm than intended and we never feel a real connection, as we did in the movies it steals from. The last two rescues are muddled and the ending unforgiveably maudlin.
Parents should know that this film has many scenes of intense peril and emotional confrontations. Characters are injured and killed. There are some bar fights. Characters use some strong language. There are sexual references and non-explicit situations, including casual sex between people who do not know each other and do not plan to know each other.
Families who see this movie should talk about why the characters wanted to be rescue divers.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Top Gun, Men of Honor (with Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the true story of a Navy diver who returned to service after losing a leg), and An Officer and a Gentleman.