Dedication can motivate people to accomplish what others once considered impossible. Dedication is a state of mind nurtured by action; it can be the difference between brilliance and mediocrity.
But dedication requires sacrifice, and in some cases, that sacrifice can be life. The Guardian effectively illustrates the double-edged sword that extreme commitment requires by going beyond the glory stories of rescue missions.
Rescue swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is a legend in the U.S. Coast Guard. People estimate he has saved between 200 and 300 lives, once even ripping every tendon in his arm to bring a man to safety. His job is so important to him that he never misses a call. Instead, he misses dates with his wife and family gatherings. Frustrated with her husband’s perpetual MIA status, Randall’s wife (Sela Ward) leaves him.
Soon afterward, he becomes the only survivor of a rescue mission gone awry. After such compound devastation, Randall is sent to head a training program for the nation’s best Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers in order to sew his fractured life back together. There he meets an arrogant champion swimmer, Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), whose focus on being the best rivals Randall’s all-encompassing devotion to the Coast Guard.
It’s common in cinema to chronicle a man so devoted to his job that he loses his social life in the process. Typically, those films are about businessmen and lawyers, who seem almost selfishly absorbed and neglectful of their families. However, it’s hard to criticize Randall for wanting to save lives. His job’s noble quality causes the average person’s reaction to switch sides, making the viewer feel almost as though Randall’s wife is selfish for divorcing him on those grounds.
One of the strengths of this film is its shock value and suspense. While training his students, Randall deviates from conventional teaching methods to lessen the gap between scenarios in the real-world and the classroom. Instead of lecturing about hypothermia, Randall makes his students swim in a small pool while he shovels in snow, letting them experience its early stages firsthand.
However, no matter how tough training gets, it doesn’t compare to the dangers of real rescue missions, which (despite this being a Disney film) aren’t glossed over. Training footage shows scenarios of swimmers struggling to free victims from raging waters while trapped between 1,000-pound blocks of ice in Alaska. The reality of the events intensifies the feelings of danger nurtured by the film.
The rescue missions and training prove how physically taxing being a Rescue Swimmer can be, but the film also succeeds in informing its audience of the mental stress involved. Not everybody can be saved, and Rescue Swimmers are continually faced with determining who lives and who dies. The burden of this decision can be haunting, as clearly shown in the emotional baggage Randall – and even Fischer – carry.
Costner’s performance is strong, making him every bit the part of a hardened Rescue Swimmer whose passion keeps him going despite the horrors of the job. While Costner delivers an admirable and believable performance, the role isn’t too much of a stretch for him.
Kutcher, on the other hand, takes a surprising turn by abandoning his typical dummy-next-door role and adopting a fiercer, more serious persona. Like his role in The Butterfly Effect, this film reaffirms that Kutcher is more than just a pretty face. Rather than remaining static throughout the film, Kutcher’s reactions show his character’s transformation from glory-seeking teen to a man who’s learned that it takes more than speed and endurance to save lives – it takes heart.
Fischer acts as a mirror of Randall; although Fischer is initially consumed by a quest for recognition, both try to ignore their troubled pasts by focusing entirely on their jobs. Both characters seem to be perpetually fighting an undercurrent of guilt coursing through their lives, and it isn’t until they interact that they notice it within themselves.
Like the film boasts, when hurricanes rip the roofs off houses and storms have shut down entire ports, the Coast Guard still goes out. By juxtaposing training with rescue missions, The Guardian outlines the intense level of commitment required of the job. Strength and sacrifice are highlighted throughout the film, and fortunately, the movie’s message isn’t undermined by a watered-down happy ending. Through the last scene, The Guardian remains dedicated to showing viewers that life isn’t about never giving up – it’s about knowing when to let go.