'USS Indianapolis: The Legacy': Film Review

USS Indianapolis: The Legacy Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of GI Film Festival
Historically valuable oral history lacks cinematic appeal.

Sara Vladic interviews scores of survivors of the historic disaster referenced by Robert Shaw's Quint in 'Jaws.'

An oral history of the greatest loss at sea ever faced by the U.S. Navy and the events surrounding it, Sara Vladic's USS Indianapolis: The Legacy is built from more than a hundred interviews conducted over a decade. Moviegoers are most likely to know of the Indianapolis' sinking during the final weeks of World War II because of the famous (if slightly inaccurate) speech given by Robert Shaw's fictional survivor in Jaws. That association, and the upcoming arrival of a feature retelling starring Nicolas Cage, may help direct attention to this aesthetically crude but historically valuable doc, which will be most at home in museum settings and on video.

Speaking almost exclusively to those who survived the disaster, those who helped rescue them and a few descendants, the picture follows a methodically chronological course. Vladic pairs bare-bones talking-head footage with portraits taken when the men were 17 or 19, listening as they start off talking about life on board the flagship of the Navy's Fifth Fleet: "When we weren't being shot at," one jokingly recalls, "we were having a good time."

Men recall a close call with kamikaze pilots near Okinawa, which sent the ship back to San Francisco for repairs, then describe the buzz on board when their next mission involved ferrying huge crates of top-secret cargo back to Tinian Island. What they unknowingly carried were the building blocks for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

It was shortly after completing this mission that a Japanese sub hit the Indianapolis with two torpedoes, causing damage that would sink the ship in mere minutes. The film does a fine job of conveying the confusion of getting men off the ship and the panic that followed, then the "sheer hell" of surviving in the water for days, once it became clear that (amazingly) the Navy did not know the ship had been attacked. The astonishing number of sharks stalking them aside, there were many ways for the oil-covered men to die as they clung to whatever floating debris they could find.

The doc is only at its halfway point when we hear of the rescue ship that finally arrived, thanks to a miraculous sighting by Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn, who was flying far overhead. As its title promises, it gives generous attention to the event's aftermath, including a court-martial of the ship's captain that seems bizarre from this vantage. Unfairly scapegoated, Captain Charles B. McVay III was posthumously exonerated by a 2000 Congressional resolution; but he and all those interviewed felt the trauma of those days in the sea for years to come.

Production company: Films by Serendipity
Director: Sara Vladic
Producers: Melanie Capacia Johnson, Sara Vladic
Director of photography: Ben Huntley
Editors: Sara Vladic, Sarah Whitelocke
Composer: Kevin Capacia

Not rated, 98 minutes