Early snickers greeting The Guardian‘s theatrical trailers were premised on the obvious, easy target. Kevin Costner in water: dude, it couldn’t be good.
The joke is weak, but the actual movie is even weaker. Imagine Waterworld without the preposterous gills, or Officer and a Gentleman without Lou Gossett and you begin to get the idea. The Guardian is as dull as a heroic redemption story could be. Begin with the formulaic casting: Costner as legendary Coast Guard rescue swimmer cum inspiring instructor Ben Randall and Ashton Kutcher as his cocky student Jake Fischer (whose name suggests he was born to the job). The reason for Randall’s consignment to teaching comes up in the film’s second chaotic at-sea rescue mission (the first shows Ben at his best, cold-cocking a male victim for being an asshole, earning the admiration of his nearly-drowned wife and revealing Ben’s seasoned efficiency). The crisis scene features what you expect — on a dark night and rocky sea, a chopper goes down in flames, and Ben is left to feel monumentally guilty over a death.
The night he spends on the freezing Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast also leaves Ben with physical damage (which heals) and harrowing relive-the-disaster nightmares (which come up repeatedly throughout the film). His wife Helen (Sela Ward) finally loses patience over his dedication to his work and seeks a divorce, sort of ironically, as his commanding officer, Capt. Hadley (Clancy Brown), has just taken him off active duty and decided he should train new swimmers at the academy.
Ben arrives in a cloud of “he’s a legend” talk. But he’s weary. Not only does he doubt himself, which he can’t admit in front of these newbies, but he also wonders how to measure efficacy. Everyone knows that you can’t save every victim. But no one knows how to measure an “acceptable loss” or live with it. And so Ben becomes the poster boy for the struggle: in between chewing Vicodins and slugging Wild Turkey, he grumps at the recruits, who, apart from self-loving Jake, range from ignorant to timid to very tense. Still angry at himself and not incidentally concerned about his rep among his fellow trainers (when they see chinks, will they taunt or will they support? Ben assumes the latter), including resentful second Jack (Neal McDonough) and skeptical presiding officer Larson (John Heard).
For 18 weeks, Ben alternates between putting the recruits through grueling drills and calling Helen late at night to beg forgiveness (the scenes work just like you think: she listens to the answering machine and sighs, her sweater comfy, her evenings lonely). The kids resent the hardships, following Jake off base to the bar, where he makes a bet he can get a pretty girl’s number (you’ve never seen that scene in a trainee-trainer movie). This local girl, Emily (Melissa Sagemiller, more or less revisiting her role as the local girl in Sleeper Cell), agrees to understand their relationship as “casual,” which means, of course, they will fall deeply in love.
When a drunken Jake goes so far as to take on the Navy — he and another swimmer go to a “squid bar,” where they are on grata big-time — he lands in a jail cell and misses a date with Emily. She’s hurt, but you see the entire evening, so you know how important it is for Jake’s “development.” That is, he doesn’t just take a few punches from big-bruiser sailors, but also engages in a confession/conversation with the earnestly disappointed Ben (who has to bail him out of jail), where the two men share their similar stories. Ben’s done some research on his hardest case, the excellent student and champion racer who won’t play for the team, and Jake tries to fend off Ben’s “psychobabble bullshit”: “I don’t give a shit what you read or who you talked to! You don’t know about me!” The trouble is, we know all about him and we haven’t read his file or talked to his old high school coach.
Still, the men press on, revealing soul-like substances and sharing their tragic pasts, then head back to the bar to beat down the sailors. Now they are equal men, bonded and blooded (Jake describes it to Emily as “the best worst night of my life,” while she looks abandoned on the other end of the phone conversation). The intersections of Ben and Jake’s difficulties — their similar arrogances, histories, and needs — make them ideal father-son-ish partners (Ben nicknames the kid “Goldfish”), their disagreements and reconciliations forming the film’s central rhythms.
The pity is that these rhythms are so predictable. Kutcher was wholly convincing when he told Ryan Seacrest, of all people, on Larry King Live (28 September 2006), of all venues, that he wanted to make and then promote The Guardian because he admires Coast Guard rescue swimmers (“I was just sort of amazed that there’s this arm of the military that they train just as hard as, you know, the other arms of the military but they dedicate their lives to saving lives and they don’t have to train to take someone’s life in order to do it”). His explanation underlined a couple of things about his movie’s generic parameters. One, the manly teacher-student film usually does involve some sort of violence as action; while the stormy sea provides that violence, it doesn’t substantially detract from Kutcher’s point that rescue swimmers rescue.
And two, the demands of formula are insurmountable. It’s irrelevant that Kutcher’s point holds and rescue swimmers are in fact heroic. The movie crushes that potential integrity by not trusting viewers with anything beyond cliché. Though the trainees include a girl among their number, the focus here is male bonding: Ben and Jake see themselves in each other to the exclusion of anyone else. When Emily suggests Jake is misreading their man-tension (“Maybe he’s trying to push you to be better”), Jake sets her straight: “He knows I’m better than he is!” And here’s the trick: her being right is more trite than if she hadn’t been. For all their earnest actorly efforts, neither man has a chance against this script.