PBS Takes USS Nimitz On a Long, Choppy Ride

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008

Combine a dizzying mishmash of cinematic gimmicks with a conk-on-the-head rock score, then make the film 10 hours long, and there you have a good recipe for the viewing equivalent of seasickness. That's what you're likely to get from "Carrier," a repetitious PBS documentary about life aboard that hale ship the USS Nimitz.

"I do like it, but I didn't love it," says one of the ship's sailors as he describes his cramped sleeping quarters; he has to slip into it like baloney into a sandwich. "Carrier," likewise, is likable enough in parts but not lovable enough; there's simply too much of it, and director Maro Chermayeff can't quite settle on a consistent style. It's hard to tell the fits from the starts.

The film also, sad to say, rocks when it isn't rolling. That is, instead of a full-blown orchestral score in the background (the one that immediately comes to mind is Richard Rodgers's brilliant music for the NBC documentary masterpiece "Victory at Sea"), the producers pipe in a rock or pop tune whenever they want to liven up the footage, or give it a beat, or perhaps add some sort of blandly ironic comment.

The songs give the film an unfortunate "Top Gun" feel, as if this were all some grandly conceived and overproduced recruitment film.

That complaint is not just a fuddy-duddy's longing for the good old days. Obviously, music in the Rodgers idiom would seem anachronistic if used today. But other viable contemporary alternatives are available. Having singers and their songs supplement the dialogue means we are never very far from, or safe from, words -- although the film does mercifully lack a narrator.

The Nimitz, said to be one of only 10 nuclear aircraft carriers in the world, is a magnificent playground for any camera, and "Carrier" was shot in HD video, which means properly equipped viewers will see pictures of stunningly sharp clarity. But the pictures aren't as spectacular as one might anticipate, and though Chermayeff doesn't mind lingering at length over the sight of a crew member sitting and talking, he likes to do quick, slick, lickety-split cuts from shot to shot once he gets outside and photographable material is everywhere.

There are ways, though, in which "Carrier" resembles a pleasure cruise. The sailors are largely an ingratiating bunch, going about their labors with more good cheer than many a civilian goes about his or hers. Even the prosaic everyday activities are worth seeing, whether they involve making pancakes, polishing brass or, as one crew member puts it, "pushing missiles around." Yes, we see the missiles and yes, they have to get pushed around.

Mostly, the Nimitz seems to be roaming around with no particular goal. Near the end of the first part, however, the ship pays a visit to a famous memorial: the one constructed in Hawaii in memory of the USS Arizona, sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor. A hint of actual music seems to sneak in at this solemn moment.

Later in the series, the Nimitz will head for Iraq and play a part in the war, jets taking off from and landing on its deck. One pilot describes the sensation of experiencing that dip from the deck into the air as "kind of like having sex in a car accident." It's hard to be absolutely certain, however, if the takeoffs shown here are any more impressive or dramatic than those replicated by prop planes (with some newsreel footage edited in) in the classic war movie "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," more than a half-century ago.

The filmmakers are careful to try for political balance, with comments about the war from men and women aboard ship. Although the monstrous attack of Sept. 11, 2001 is repeatedly invoked by the ship's officers in pep talks, one sailor says bluntly, "One thing has absolutely nothing to do with the other" -- the "other," of course, being the war. But another young sailor eloquently expresses the sense of patriotism that compelled him to enlist.

Perhaps the most pungent and affecting comment, however, comes from a young African American woman: "I don't get why we're fighting for somebody else's freedom when we barely have our own."

Another female member of the crew is reprimanded, on camera, because alcohol was found in her locker. She takes the punishment gamely. Alarm is sounded when it appears one sailor has slipped overboard and is lost at sea, a terrifying prospect.

Individually and in the aggregate, the members of the crew are inspiringly impressive, and one can hardly help empathizing with the young man who says, "I don't want to be a quitter, but I really would rather be home."

Those who wade into "Carrier" might not want to be quitters, either, but after four or five hours, they may find they'd really rather be checking out who's survived on "American Idol."

The 10-part Carrier (10 hours) debuts tomorrow at 9 on Channels 22 and 26.

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