Mission of the Shark (1991)
Directed by: Robert Iscove
Starring: Stacy Keach, Richard Thomas, Steve Landesberg, Don Harvey, David Caruso
One of these days I’ll have to write a definition of what a disaster movie is. I suppose many would categorize Mission of the Shark as a war movie, and they would not be wrong, but it certainly deals with one particularly catastrophical incident so here we go.
Mission of the Shark tells the story of the the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Yes, it’s the very same story Captain Quint tells in that scene in Jaws.
As any Wikipedia reader knows, it all took place during the late stages of World War II, in July and August 1945. The Indianapolis had delivered parts for the first atomic bomb to a military base in the Pacific when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The ship sank very fast, leaving about 800 men out of the 1196 onboard to fight for their lives in the middle of the ocean. When rescuers arrived, almost five days later, only 316 sailors remained alive.
This is a no-frills movie that seems to follow the true events close enough. Stacy Keach plays Captain McVay and gives a dignified portrait of the man who in the aftermath was made a scapegoat and court-martialed. There are few household names in the cast, but several faces you’ll recognize from various tv shows.
As for the action, it is honestly rather tepid. I’ll admit that I picked this one up expecting to see lots of nasty shark attacks, but from a disaster movie perspective, that part of the story is disappointingly tastefully handled. The actual attacks are mostly kept out of view, splashes of red water clueing us in on what’s happening.
As later efforts on a similar theme, e.g. Open Water, have shown, creating suspense from a statical situation, such as people bobbing about in the middle of the ocean, isn’t all that easy, sharks or no sharks. Misson of the Shark spices it up by adding a couple of murders, one sailor drowning his commanding officer when told to get off a life raft, and later the same sailor being stabbed to death by a crazed comrade. How truthful those details are, I don’t know.
As compelling as the story is in itself, the resulting movie is more of an acceptable factual representation than a nail-bitingly suspenseful drama. It is very much a made-for-TV movie with modest production values and a pedestrian script. But if you want a quick retelling of the U.S.S. Indianapolis story and can’t be bothered to read up on it, you might want to check it out.