Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (1991)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2020-08-10 01:44

Written by: Alan Sharp
Directed by: Robert Iscove
Starring: Stacy Keach, Bob Gunton, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"It is not easy being a survivor."

When Universal decided it would produce a follow-up to Jaws, it briefly considered mounting a prequel that would detail Quintís exploits aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Studio president Sidney Sheinberg nixed the idea, though, opting instead for the more traditional sequel that eventually swam into theaters in 1978. However, the story of the Indianapolis--and particularly Robert Shawís haunting rendition of it--cast a long shadow and renewed interest in this little-known chapter of American history. It would take over a decade, but it would eventually receive the cinematic treatment on the small screen with Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. A far cry from what it could have been, it debuted with little fanfare in the early 90s, when even the Jaws series itself had run its course, leaving audiences with this by-the-numbers, melodramatic retelling of events that smuggles some biting cynicism through its backdoor.

Mission of the Shark opens with a 15-year reunion for the Indianapolis survivors, including Captain Charles McVay III (Stacy Keach), who is overwhelmed by his reception and naturally begins to think back to the fateful mission that made him and his men infamous. In the waning days of World War II, McVay and his crew mount a top-secret mission to deliver a critical component of the atomic bomb that will eventually drop over Hiroshima, effectively ending the war. Their mission is obviously a success but not without turmoil: during the return voyage, a Japanese submarine spots the Indianapolis and slams it with torpedoes, sinking the ship and leaving its survivors stranded in the middle of the ocean. For four days, McVay and his men float helplessly in the ocean, surrounded by sharks and growing more prone to madness and strife, before the wartime bureaucracy just happens to have a plane in the right place at the right time to spot them in the ocean.

Itís probably a bit morbid, maybe even a bit disrespectful to the men who lived it, but letís be real about the intrigue for something titled Mission of the Shark: weíre here for the part of the story that finds the shipís crew at the mercy of natureís most efficient killing machines. You could easily imagine this premise turned into a harrowing, claustrophobic affair (think Open Water but on a bigger scale), full of tension and gnarly gore. Director Robert Iscove and screenwriter Alan Sharp had a different vision, though, one that was likely influenced by the low budget and the made-for-TV nature of the project. While the ordeal in the shark-infested waters does take up a large chunk of the story, itís not the filmís raison d'Ítre, nor is it exploited for schlock. Thereís the pretense that this is more of a dramatic reenactment, meaning it doesnít play as a horror movie so much as a rote retelling of events.

As such, that intriguing stretch is depicted in matter-of-fact fashion, with little in the way of dynamic storytelling or character development. Following the destruction of the ship (itself a decent bit of action movie spectacle, considering the scale), the crew is scattered about into pockets of survivors, each of them with their own little subplot. One raft is full of guys who quickly decide itís every man for themselves, leading to some intense confrontations that end with violence; another finds men going so mad that they start to suspect other scattered survivors to be Japanese decoys, a mistake that ends tragically. And then thereís another soldier whoís floating on his own, writing an imaginary letter back home, complete with a schmaltzy voiceover narration that undercuts any tension. Itís all very serviceable, and realized with a mix of stock footage, an obviously fake find, and some well-timed spurts of gore rising to the surface when a crewman bites it. (Among the familiar faces in this stretch: David Caruso and Bob Gunton, both of them in oddly thankless roles.) None of it lives up to whatever you imagine whenever you hear Shawís indelible rendition of these events, which twisted it into an eerie, unnerving tale of survival.

But to its credit, Mission of the Shark isnít trying to dwell in that shadow. Itís much more interested in stepping out of it to capture the entire breadth and width of this story with frequent cutaways from the main action that explain how a ship could simply be sunk and its survivors left stranded for days. Quintís insistence that the missionís secrecy was to blame is partially true: it turns out that combatant ships werenít marked when returning to port for strategic reasons. However, it should have been reported overdue but wasnít thanks to various snaufaus up and down the chain of command. Our glimpse at the nearest military base reveals a war machine still mired in bureaucracy--itís a place where the mail gets backlogged for months at a time and a senior officer canít be bothered by incidents because heís too busy wading in a tropical paradise with women. This isnít the most flattering depiction of the so-called Greatest Generationís moment of triumph because the truth is that the Indianapolisís fate was as much a fuck-up as it was a normal casualty of war.

Mission of the Shark goes a step further in this insistence, lingering on for about 20 minutes after the menís rescue, to the part of the story that Jaws and conventional American history narratives forget. The real sharks here started swarming once the survivors emerged from the water: rather than admit their mistake, the Navy court-martialed McVay, going so far as to bring in the commander of the Japanese submarine (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) to provide testimony that the captainís recklessness was primarily to blame. All of a sudden, Mission of the Shark becomes a fairly gripping courtroom drama, one that allows Keach to finally flex his chops as a beleaguered, vilified captain that most probably considered to be a hero. His reaction to it all is wonderfully underplayed: thereís a sense of resignation to the protocol at hand, and you never sense that he never overcomes the guilt he shares in having so many men perish on his watch. The scenes he shares with his counterpart hint at a more ambitious film lurking beneath the surface of an otherwise rote retelling: thereís an unspoken, shared understanding of duty that can only be shared by officers of war. Both of these men were merely cogs in a much bigger machine that essentially ground them up and spit them out: while McVay was later exonerated and briefly continued his career, the ending title card reveals he eventually took his own life, making him the Indianapolis's final victim. Almost out of nowhere, Mission of the Shark becomes an unexpectedly cynical screed against the governmental bureaucracy and cowardice that sends men off to carry out furtive orders and then punishes them to cover up its own mistakes.

Obviously, Mission of the Shark probably isnít going to deliver on expectations if youíre looking for a horrific, suspenseful tale of shark-infested waters. What you will get, though, is a sobering little history lesson that pulls few punches in its treatment of the politics and the military. Far from a rousing, flag-waving exaltation of Greatest Generation grit and tenacity, Mission of the Shark is a reminder that war is hell even when itís supposedly over. Itís a stark depiction of a war thatís historically painted in rosier terms in Hollywood, particularly during this era; itís almost like some of the Vietnam era cynicism seeped in to properly shade our perceptions of a war that was full of atrocities and not some grand, sweeping mandate of American superiority. Now, it is deserving of a better vehicle than this serviceable made-for-TV movie, but Mission of the Shark at least strives to do more than simply exploit an infamous historical event for schlock purposes.

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