The Wet and Aging Hero: Costner in The Guardian

The Guardian gave me a headache. I had difficulty sitting through the film’s nearly 2 and ½ hours of Kevin Costner’s ever vigilant portrayal of the legendary Bill Randall, helicopter rescue swimmer for the United States Coast Guard. Kevin Costner earned movie star status with his portrayal of an aging not-quite pro baseball player in the classic Bull Durham way back in 1988, but his subsequent career has been spotty. I guess it should be no surprise that The Guardian has several strong correlations to his best film. Both movies depict a world-weary vet who must teach the rookie his skills, only in Bull Durham the context of a goofy lower league team and some excellent screenwriting, not to mention the supporting acting of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, kept the film sustained on its own wit. By contrast, The Guardian strives for mythological grandeur—like so many other movie stars, Kevin Costner wants to be enshrined on-screen, and that interferes with the detailed depiction of the Coast Guard’s rescue missions.

So while director Andrew Davis does a decent job with the actors, The Guardian still comes off as a water-logged Top Gun with heart-tugging Titanic moments where choral singers accentuate the pathos of those poor guys on various tugboats and fishing vessels sinking into stormy seas. The Coast Guard keeps sending out its helicopters to drop ace rescue swimmers to save people, often by placing them in a large basket dropped down with a metal cable that subsequently hoists them to safety. Unfortunately, Bill Randall is married to his job, or the sea, or whatever, so his wife dumps him soon after the film begins. Then Bill loses his entire crew when a large wave knocks a helicopter into the water, so his immediate superior decides its time for Bill to go teach at a Coast Guard school in Arkansas.

Once the film shifts to land, one learns that Coast Guard academies strongly resemble Marine base camp. The would-be rescue swimmers run around in grey sweatsuits, do push-ups, listen to rap music, and yell out “Ooorah!” as if they have just marched over from the set of Jarhead. We get introduced to the swimming star Jake Fisher (Ashton Kutcher) and lots of music video-like training montages where guys perform stunts like pushing a cement block underwater to learn teamwork. Kutcher looks buff, winsome, and pseudo-rebellious enough for Randall to say things like “it’s hard to peel the layers back on you,” though Kutcher’s character seems obvious enough if you’ve ever seen Tom Cruise in a similar movie. Costner does deserve credit for acknowledging his age. While Kutcher romps around with his girlfriend played by Melissa Sagemiller, Senior chief Randall mostly spends his evenings drinking Wild Turkey whisky and leaving phone messages on his wife’s answering machine.

Will hot-head Fisher make it through training without getting dismissed from the school for starting bar-fights and sleeping around? Will Randall go on one last glorious mission, or is he all washed up? As the plot winds down, the film begins to resemble an extended army ad, with much slow motion macho swagger, lots of saluting in uniform, and young men looking for gruff elderly approval. Convention dictates that the story needs to return to the exploits in the ocean, but the screenwriters of The Guardian did not know how to end the film. The final half hour drags as the ace swimmers go out for one last mission over the frozen Alaskan sea where a crusty captain has been pinned inside his fishing vessel. I was appalled by the emotionally manipulative ending, especially when the credits followed with real-life photographs of the Coast Guard. They merit more than Kevin Costner embracing his own myth.