9-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday
WFYI (Channel 20)
Wow, is the Pentagon going to be happy about “Carrier”! This five-night, 10-hour recruiting video masquerading as a documentary follows the “USS Nimitz” and its 5,000 personnel over a six-month period in 2005 as the nuclear aircraft carrier headed from California to the Persian Gulf and back as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Carrier,” which should have been called “Real World USS Nimitz,” uses reality TV storytelling and music video-style sequences to try to capture the day-to-day life of the people aboard this “instrument of international diplomacy.”
Now, the cynic in me thinks PBS is airing “Carrier” to appease the Bush Administration and congressional Republicans, who again want to cut funding for public television. These bloated 10 hours look like little more than a sop to those who brand public broadcasting as a “liberal media” outlet that shouldn’t receive taxpayer support.
But that can’t be the reason this is on, can it? Nah. They wouldn’t be that transparent, right?
A 17-person crew was embedded on the “Nimitz” for six months to make “Carrier” and, for the first hour at least, it looked like they were coming away with a balanced, intimate look at life aboard a ship. They weren’t making “Das Boot,” but at least they’d provide a view of the hardships as well as the joys of Navy life.
But by the time hour two rolls around, we’re treated to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” on the soundtrack as aircraft lift off from the deck. By night three, it’s “Top Gun” revisited, with planes piercing the Magritte-blue sky as a bright and breezy Walls song with the chorus “So I run, and I run, to the bright and shining sun” plays underneath.
I guarantee you, kids who watch this will want to enlist. Hell, I wanted to enlist, and I’m a 49-year-old pacifist.
And if the visuals don’t hook you, there are an extraordinary number of testimonials about how the Navy has given these sailors a life they never would have had otherwise.
“I’ve loved my time in the Navy for the most part,” one says, “and I’ve gotten a ridiculous amount of opportunities. They sent me to rehab and cleaned me up. They gave me laser eye surgery. They’ve given me experience in the professional that I love. They’re paying for my college.”
For balance, one of his wise-guy shipmates chimes in: “Whereas I’m probably going to be a drug addict and I still wear glasses. But they are going to pay for my college.”
Do some soldiers question their mission? Of course. “I don’t get why we’re fighting for somebody else’s freedom when we barely have our own,” one says. “I think we’re fighting a war that might be more futile than we recognize,” says another.
But for every one like them, there are many more who wish they’d been ordered to drop bombs on Iraq. Or say, “you feel like you have family here.” Or explain that 9/11 is the reason they’re there. “It makes it extremely black and white,” one says.
Not for a second am I mocking these people (except maybe the one who thought the secretary of defense’s name was “Condolingus Rice.” The name “Donalatio Rumsfeld musta slipped his mind). They’re ridiculously brave for putting themselves in harm’s way — not just in potential battle but in doing the dirty work aboard the ship. I’m thrilled for every single one of them who turned his or her life around, and I know we need more of them to serve, unfortunately.
But what I saw here were a lot of slightly developed stories about sailors whose love lives or careers went sour (or sweetened) while at sea and too many instances of military life seeming like the toughest job you’ll ever love. And 10 hours of it, yet.
Not eight months ago, PBS devoted 15 hours to Ken Burns’ masterful “The War,” about World War II. Burns made war look like what it is: hard and horrible and, in the case of WWII, absolutely necessary. Whether or not you think the Iraq war rises to that standard, “Carrier” makes life at war, with its shore leave, shipboard convenience store and gym facility, seem reasonably glamorous. That’s unforgivable.
I hope PBS gets its funding. But if shows like “Carrier” are the price, maybe I don’t.