Saturday, February 11, 2006

“Annapolis,” The Movie – Personal Commentary

This brief posting is a series of personal comments and reactions to the movie, rather than a true review. Despite the mixed reviews the movie has been receiving, I felt I should see it, in light of the many Annapolis graduates I number among my friends.

The Department of Defense, after initially indicating a willingness to cooperate with the filmmakers, ultimately withheld permission for them to shoot the film on location at the Naval Academy. Their reasoning, as I understand it, was that the script did not adequately portray an overall depiction of life at the U.S. Naval Academy that was in keeping with the spirit of the place. Having now seen the film, I would have to say that I agree with the decision of the Navy.

“Annapolis” is not a bad film; it is an incomplete and facile film. The filmmakers settled for telling a melodramatic tale when they could have told a more gripping story in any number of ways. If you did well on the “analogies” section of the SAT’s, then perhaps this comparison will make sense to you. The film’s depiction of the life of a midshipman is to the reality of life at Annapolis as an empty taco shell is to a full course Mexican meal complete with Tabasco sauce. There is nothing wrong with putting an empty taco shell on a plate – as long as you understand that you need to continue the process and fill it with some meat, cheese, lettuce and top it off with a zesty sauce. “Annapolis” tries to feed us an empty shell. Some reviews of this movie that I have read have complained that it portrays life at Annapolis as largely one-dimensional. This is an accurate criticism. Based upon the storyline of this film, one would assume that life at the Naval Academy is comprised of 90% boxing and a smattering of studying, running obstacle courses, having conflicts with roommates and upperclassmen and a modicum of wrestling with ethical issues related to the honor code.

The plot could easily have been concocted by taking a pile of loose script pages from “Rudy” and another pile of loose pages from the script of “Rocky” and shuffling them together to produce a melodramatic mélange. The characters are largely drawn from central casting’s supply of cutout two dimensional stereotypes – the raucous and randy New York punk, the driven Asian over-achiever, the porcine kid from the South who carries on his back the hopes of his backwater hometown that sent him off to Annapolis with a parade and the key to the city. We are not even spared Apollo Creed – in the person of an upperclassman who is a former enlisted Marine who gained entrance to the Academy through an alternate admissions procedure for promising enlisted personnel. His mission in life becomes finding a way to haze and intimidate the film’s hero – played reasonably well in a James Dean pout by James Franco - into quitting and returning to his blue-collar roots in the shipyard across the Severn River from the Naval Academy. The plot line is a series of predictable soap opera vignettes that any discerning viewer can see coming over the horizon like an aircraft carrier steaming for its homeport.

If anyone is interested in getting the real feel for life at Annapolis or any of the other service academies, there is a rich storehouse of films and books that do a fine job of lifting the curtain on the kind of life that one can expect to experience in these crucibles of character and command. Pat Conroy’s novel, “Lords of Disciple,” takes an unblinking, unsentimental and moving look at life at The Citadel. The book, a literary masterpiece, was also made into a fine film. Former Secretary of the Navy, James Webb, wrote a controversial novel, “A Sense of Honor,” about his experience as a midshipman in the years before the Viet Nam war. For his troubles of ripping the scab off of some old wounds, he found himself banned for a time from setting foot on campus at Annapolis. The book makes for riveting reading. In “The Nightingale’s Song,” Robert Timberg takes the lives of five Annapolis grads – Ollie North, John Poindexter, John McCain, James Webb and Bud MacFarlane - and follows them through the wild roller coast ride of their careers that took them from the Naval Academy to Viet Nam to the Pentagon and White House and finally to the Iran Contra Scandal. This book is a must read. On the West Point side of the coin, “Absolutely American” is as good as it gets. Rolling Stone’s David Lipsky became the original “embedded reporter,” spending four years at West Point following the fortunes of the Class of 2002. The resulting book is a revelation well worth reading.

I am grateful to the many men and women educated at Annapolis who are now part of my life. Many of them served – and continue to serve – our nation with distinction and with honor. Others have moved on to places of leadership and responsibility in the private sector and in the government. For most of them, The Naval Academy provided a challenging platform from which to launch the rest of their lives. The education they received is one of the best returns on taxpayer’s investment that I am aware of in America today.


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