The Guardian: What Motivates a Rescue Swimmer to Risk His Life for Another?

This is my counterpoint to “Costner’s Guardian Just a Remake with a New Title,” by Matt Sanchez.

Warning: This article contains movie spoilers.

First, how do we categorize it? Is it in the same class with “Top Gun” as Sanchez says? I don’t think so. Don’t be fooled by the military setting and intense action scenes. Those things make the movie superficially similar to “Top Gun” and many other films. Look at the characters and the development, their relationships, the hardships they overcome internally. “The Guardian” is psychologically powerful, complex, and in the end inspiring. It is also original in concept.

“The Guardian” tells the story of a legend, Ben Randall, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. What makes him the best is his unquestioning devotion to saving lives. He does not romanticize his job in the least. He has a practical understanding of what the job means. There is no glory nor accolades in what he does. A rescue swimmer gets meager pay, and if he’s lucky he comes home alive. After the tragic loss of his entire crew, Randall is reassigned to teach “A” School to train future swimmers. As Randall wakes up on his first day at the school in Kodiak, Alaska, he takes 4 or 5 Codeines for pain, and then steps outside to be an unusual kind of teacher, making the recruits hold a push-up position for several minutes while he makes his rounds.

Enter Ashton Kutcher’s character young Jake Fischer, nickname “Goldfish.” He is a former high school swim champ with something to prove. We find out he is partly responsible for the deaths of several all-star swim team buddies in a car accident. He wears their initials as tattoos on his arm and he wears their loss in his heart or on his sleeve. This is his motivation for being at the school. Ignore the arrogance and swagger. Jake desperately needs to come to terms with his past.

The second strand of interest is Randall’s dissolving marriage with wife Helen. Randall is a doer, a saver of lives. Helen doesn’t need to be saved. Randall is married to the Coast Guard; he can only have one love. So Helen wants him, in her own words, to “let me go.” Meanwhile, Fischer is developing a relationship with local school teacher Emily Thomas which they dub “casual” – it started out as a bet – but it is obviously developing into something more.

Randall has much to teach Fischer. He breaks him down through grueling drills, personal remarks, and, finally through an emotional scene in Randall’s office where Randall confronts Jake about his past. Randall becomes like a father to Jake, telling him to forgive himself and let go of the past. Jake starts out as a loner, but he learns about teamwork. He helps a classmate, Hodge, who is at risk at the school, to pass the crucial test of breaking a drowning swimmer’s choke-hold.

Randall knows what it’s like to lose his crew and feel the burden that comes with that. He teaches Fischer not to “wear those he loses on his arm.” I believe Randall’s contribution to Fischer is to help him focus “on the ones he can save,” not being mired by thoughts of the ones he can’t.

In the movie’s other main thread, Randall gives his wife Helen the divorce papers she had wanted, and learns to “let her go.” In the end, he retires from rescue swimming, but not until he performs one final act of heroism. In a climactic action scene Jake is trapped inside a fishing vessel by himself in the stormy

Bering Sea

Randall is sent in to get him out. He succeeds, but the rescue cable is damaged and can only hold the weight of one man. Of his own will, Randall cuts himself loose at some 100 + feet of altitude, thereby saving Jake and, of course, sacrificing his own life.

Randall lets go of Helen just as Jake returns to Emily, where he offers to commit himself to their relationship. Jake says “I lied. I can’t do casual.” He is ready to go on with his life. That is Randall’s gift to him as well.

The credits, you get to see authentic footage of Hurricane Katrina rescue sequences, with beautiful shots of U.S. Coast Guard helicopters assisting victims who are trapped in the flood. The footage is accompanied by beautiful music, a mixture of symphony and hip-hop, that will perhaps bring a tear to your eye.

In response to Sanchez’s critique, “Who is the hero of this movie?,” (as if that is a problem), I say it is both Randall and Fischer, in addition to the men, women, and core values of the United States Coast Guard.

What motivates a rescue swimmer to risk his life for a living? It is not guilt or grief. Costner makes that very clear to Jake. That is the baggage that must be left behind.

Is it stoicism? A Hemingway-like resignation to the forces of nature, to be taken by the sea? I don’t think so either.  While learning the swimming lessons, the guardian of the customers should be with them. It increases the safety and protection of the small children. 

It is a hopeful attitude. A desire for adventure. Compassion. A love for what you do. And a love to serve, without receiving the glory for it. That is why this movie is so inspiring to us and speaks to us as average people. People can be selfish and self-centered. But we can also display an amazing quality of selflessness and humanity when we see the suffering of our brothers and sisters as occured after Hurricane Katrina. If we use a “picture of humanity” definition of art, this film is art par excellence.