The 10-hour series CARRIER was filmed aboard the USS Nimitz during the aircraft carrier’s six-month deployment to the Gulf in support of the Iraq War. The project itself took over three years to complete as 17 filmmakers shot 1,600 hours of film as the ship departed Coronado, California on May 7, 2005 and docked at various ports of call like Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Guam, Kuala Lumpur, Bahrain and Perth, Australia before returning to Coronado November 8, 2005.
After securing clearance from the Navy, the film crew set out to learn how the 5,000 sailors and Marines coped with living on the roof of a nuclear reactor and underneath an airport runway. They struggled to find their place in the first 2-1/2 months, spending weeks discerning the basics of daily life while feeling like intruders.
Everything improved as they delved further into the characters they wanted to follow, discovered how to garner access for the best places to capture those stories and began to feel more at one with the ship’s crew. Soon they were sharing the same cold-sweat tension of watching F-18s make night landings on a pitching deck in stormy seas or simply participating in comedic maritime rituals to draw laughter. When the journey ended, they hadn’t just captured life aboard CARRIER, they had experienced it. The filmmakers share some of those moments in the slideshow and essays compiled below.
Pamela Yates: Producer, In the Field
How the hell did I get here?
The journey started on the morning of September 11, 2001. While riding my bike downtown to a breakfast meeting I saw a jet flying low and fast over southern Manhattan. I was so close I was sure it was an American Airlines jet, and as it dipped its wings I thought it was going to crash in the harbor. Instead it flew straight into the north tower of the World Trade Center. I called 9-1-1. The time was 8:46 am. What I witnessed that day will forever be burned into my memory. Yet, I don’t see September 11th as an isolated event. The trajectory of history since then the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the erosion of our civil liberties, the destruction of human rights, Abu Ghraib and the sanctioning of torture to ostensibly “win&rduo; the “war on terror“ has been one long bitter tragedy filled with death.
And that was why, four years after 9/11, when I was asked to join the “Carrier” film team as a producer, I wanted to describe part of the tragedy what it was like for Navy sailors to go to the war in Iraq on an aircraft carrier. Why was the war in Iraq seen as revenge for 9/11, though the two events are not related? Even before we got to the Persian Gulf, life on the carrier was scary. The USS Nimitz has scores of high-performance bombers taking off and landing at hundreds of miles an hour on its flight deck. Below that are eight decks of ordnance or bombs, and below that two nuclear reactors powering the war ship. Are there nuclear weapons? The Navy neither confirms nor denies that they are aboard.
In warfare, this is what aircraft carriers are designed to do: the 5,000 plus people on board all work to ensure that the jets can take off, drop their bombs and land safely back on the carrier. But most people on board the Nimitz don’t want to think about the danger or their targets. They’re trained to think in mathematical terms: How big is this bomb? How thick are the walls of the target? How deep is the bunker? Not what will the bombs do to human beings. Maybe I’m naive, though I’ve spent more time in combat zones in Central America, Uganda, D.R. Congo, Haiti and Peru than almost all of the people on board the carrier. I don’t want to get cynical or hardened. I like to think I’ll never get used to war.
What we “hit” in the zodiac crossing the Persian Gulf is just another darkened boat’s wake. At the speed we’re traveling, it’s enough to send us all flying, but not enough to make the skipper slow down. Under cover of night we’re rushing back to the destroyer, part of the Nimitz’s Carrier Strike Group that’s patrolling the Gulf. From the destroyer, we’re making side trips to search cargo ships, clambering up the sides on rope ladders with an the elite search-and-seizure sailors who are looking for terrorists as well as explosives and materials used to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The most amazing scene we film on one of these trips is to two Navy-protected oil transfer platforms about 12 miles off the coast in Iraqi territorial waters. The Al-Basrah and Khawr Al Amaya platforms or ABOT and KAAOT in sailor lingo, are described to me as the “crown jewels” of the Iraqi economy 85% of Iraqi crude is being pumped into the holds of enormous tankers from around the world. Eleven billion dollars a year’s worth. Navy destroyers and the carrier’s F-18A Super Hornets have created an exclusion zone around the oil platforms. No unauthorized vessels can enter what the sailors refer to as the “kill zone”.
Let me tell you about the life of the Navy Mobile Security Unit members guarding the oil platforms in the “kill zone.” It is 115F. You live in a converted shipping container and dine on meals ready to eat (MREs) on your 6-month deployment. You train your Iraqi counterparts, who the U.S. Navy has only recently convinced to take turns patrolling the Iraqi coast after dark instead of going home at night. To keep in shape you lift weights outside in the ferocious sun, while the Iraqi naval infantry guys huddle with their little potbellies in the almost non-existent shade of the oil platforms. The Americans have to train the Iraqis but they don“t really respect or trust them. One sailor told me he takes his gun into the shower with him. The Americans may want to turn over the oil platforms to the Iraqis, but it seems like a long time before the Iraqis will be trusted to protect the platforms.
Tens of thousands of nautical miles later, returning to San Diego at the end of our 6-month deployment, I was a given a souvenir coin by the members of the USS Nimitz Weapons Department with their slogan emblazoned, ”Live by Chance, Love by Choice, Kill by Profession”. Since then I often think about what effect the carrier’s presence had on the war in Iraq, and what purpose it served. While we were in the Gulf, the insurgency worsened and the U.S. continued to lose credibility as a defender of democracy and upholder of human rights. Yet there was one striking change from when we left to when we returned: the tide of American public opinion had shifted against the war.
Matthew Akers: Producer, In the Field
It sounds crazy but throughout the deployment it was always tempting to jump overboard. The ocean at times was so beautiful and seductive that it seemed impossible that any harm could come from diving in, being enveloped by the big blue and then surfacing in time to see the Nimitz disappear over the horizon.
I finally got my chance in the Gulf.
When they Navy does a swim call, they deploy several small boats around the swimming perimeter, clearing the water of any floating objects and keeping an eye out for sharks and sea snakes. The Navy guys carried guns big enough to turn any shark into seafood in about two seconds. Shark and awe. I had the privilege of riding shotgun in one of the dinghies securing the perimeter. It was amazing to be in the a small boat a short distance from the carrier. Suddenly I was able to see in a new perspective this gargantuan thing I had been a passenger on for months with nothing distracting my visual field. Just flat ocean and the U.S.S. Nimitz. It felt like an out-of-body experience, as if this big metal thing had become an extension of my feet somehow and there I was looking at it thinking how strange it was to suddenly be disconnected from it. Also it was amazing to see how high the jump actually was and how small everyone looked in comparison with the hulking mass. The sailors looked like little penguins jumping off the glacier into a world both familiar and unknown.
When I finished shooting from the dinghy, it was my turn to take the plunge. We had to wait in a long line for our turn to jump. Then took our leap of faith. The water was warm and salty but it was exhilarating anyway. We were not allowed to swim around at our leisure we had to head straight to the aft of the ship and get out; however, they did allow us to do it more than once. So I guess you could say that it was less of a swim and more of a plunge or dive experience. Nevertheless, just having a change in our routine and being able to touch that liquid substance you had been staring at from a distance for so long was like experiencing some sort of emotional re-birth.
Josh Bennett: Associate Producer Ship
Then came the equator and the “Wog” day ceremony. I can’t get into the details of that infamous ceremony without risking revocation of my coveted “Shellback” status. What I can say is the film crew had to take part in the annual Wog Talent show a Gong Show of skits and talent performed in front of 5,000 rowdy seamen. As the film crew, our cameras had been the constant all-seeing eye on the Navy. Now, all eyes were on us.
We scrambled to come up with an act for the show when someone mentioned that Mark Mandler (one of our Sound Mixers) and I played guitar. How about a song? What about a skit/song? For months, our sole entertainment was a nightly hoot-a-nanny of classic rock hits and folk standards that usually got rowdy enough to get at least one request to “shut up” from our 8 man state room. But, Mark and I had developed a rapport that spanned generations and musical influences ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Chaka Khan.
With that in mind, we took out our pens and the words flowed like government-issue liquid butter. Then small miracles happened a life-size chicken suit ended up in our hands, courtesy of the ship’s tactical officer. Our resourceful AP Julie found an old box of camouflage, urban chic “Film Crew” tank tops and our male crew gamely agreed to dress up. Our friends in the fighter squadrons donated their squadron shirts to our female crew members and we took to the stage looking like a team of deranged figure skaters doing a “Delta Force” tribute.
We took the stage ringed by bags of dunnage and mountains of refuse waiting for compacting. From the first line, “We should have left you long ago” a rousing cheer went up. And by the third verse, 5,000 sailors were singing along, and I’d like to think the sound of all those hoarse and tired voices sailed out over the gulf, and someone got a decent laugh from the whole thing, or at least raised an eyebrow. In the end, it seemed like being able to laugh together made anything on the ship a little more possible. Laughing at ourselves was another way of showing how invested we all were in this endeavor, and how we’d carved out our own place in the floating bowels of the Nimitz.
Alejandro de Onis: Associate Editor
A few days later, I found myself in the middle of the action. All around us, jets and people were executing dizzying maneuvers planes turning, launching and landing and moving around the deck in close proximity to one another. Sailors in primary-colored shirts were making incomprehensible hand signals and I thought to myself I’d best learn those signals fast. It was exhilarating and terrifying.
As I ducked beneath the engine of an F-18, I felt the heat on my neck. Coming off the flight deck it was obvious we were facing two major challenges. One, to try to focus on shooting verite scenes amidst the chaos and two, to find access to proper angles which would give us our most dramatic beauty shots.
One day we set our tripod on the catwalk adjacent to catapult 1. As the jets launched, they seemed to be coming right at us. We were getting great shots until a Prowler (a very powerful jet whose engines point at a slightly downward angle) stood ready for launch on the cat. As it roared above us, I panned to try to keep it in my sights. The blast from its engines nearly knocked us over. Another lesson learned on the flight deck!
After one of the longest straight runs on the deployment without a port call, we finally pulled in to Dubai. It is hard to convey the overwhelming ecstasy of that first step onto terra firma after weeks at sea. In celebration, the crew decided to seek out the driest place imaginable, so we embarked on a day trip into the desert. After a long, sizzling day, I was lucky to catch our crew in an amazing moment. Silhouetted by the setting sun on the peak of a dune, they stretched and twisted their bodies into the individual letters of “Icon” a sunset salutation for our executive producers in Los Angeles. As the sun disappeared behind, taking the stagnant heat with it, we welcomed the cool desert winds and relished the solid ground beneath us.
Mark Mandler: Sound Recordist
Crossing the Line: When you cross the equator in the middle of the Indian Ocean, you’re a long way from anywhere. The ancient mariner’s “Crossing the Line&rdquo or Shell-back Ceremony breaks the monotony for a couple of days. In our room we created an act for the talent show. Drawing on the deep musical abilities of our PA, Josh Bennett, we wrote an original, funny and indelicate song about life on the Nimitz. We had one rehearsal in the ship’s focs’le. Since we were all working on different characters and stories, this song-and-dance number was one of the few times the film crew all joined together on a single goal.
At the talent show, we had the best act and the loudest applause even with a censored version of our song but we were robbed. The judges gave the trophy to some less talented, but more thoroughly enlisted sailors.
“Nimitz, oh Nimitz, I couldn’t bare to let you go.
Mark Brice, Cinematographer
I remember finally looking up from the camerawork. We were perhaps thirty miles out, and Oahu, that small island, looked like a veritable continent from the western approaches. I could hardly make sense of it, when I looked to the southern end and spotted the very familiar promontory of Diamondhead, the extinct volcano that graces postcards, it was just a nub in the distance.
During every break in the filming, I’d glance at Diamondhead. As it came into focus I thought of luau’s and lei’s and grass skirts, the cheesy tourist images that make Waikiki endearing. These things were hard to reconcile with the 1,100-foot warship we were on. It seemed the closer we got to port, the more out of place the Nimitz became. This was a ship made for open ocean, far from the sight of land, a ship for blue water passages at thirty knots.
Diamondhead became the defining feature of Oahu as we passed the harbor at Ala Moana, the hotels of Waikiki strung out as background. Tugs escorted us as the screws of the Nimitz churned up mud in the channel. The smell of jet fuel on deck was replaced by that of land and the Hawaiian frangipanni flowers.
I’d never been to Pearl Harbor. The sailors stood at attention along the rails, and the meaning of this place crept up on us. We passed the Arizona Memorial passed in slow motion. The sailors along the rail were intoxicated with coming home. Some had tears in their eyes, others were giddy, though they remained at attention.
There was a fine line between experiencing the moment and observing it through the camera. We’d been onboard for three-and-a-half months ourselves, through the crucible of the Persian Gulf and the passage out. Wasn’t this our moment to savor as well? For me, on a day-to-day basis, this deployment on the Nimitz was less about the war in Iraq than is was about the experience of being at sea for an extended time. The ocean provided a new story each day, a world apart from the next port of call. I guess in a different age, I would have run off to sea. But as we trudged around with sixty pounds of film gear, I didn’t have liberty to reflect. My body ached.
On the flight deck, I remember two young women along the rail in their dress whites, the Arizona Memorial in view behind them. A timeless image. I went closer to hear them whisper to each other, still at attention.
“What are you going to do first?” one asks.
“I’m gonna get a hamburger,” the other answered.
They remained at attention, hands clasped behind their backs. I hope the spirits of the Arizona weren’t angry.
When you’re at sea, your ship is your whole world. These young sailors reminded me that was all changing. When I finally put the camera down for a while, I hit the beach. I thought of that moment aboard as I paddled a surfboard out amongst the other tourists that afternoon, in the shadow of Diamondhead.
Night of the Pitching Decks: I remember it as a beautiful morning onboard the Nimitz. We were far away from the Persian Gulf, south of the equator, bound for Perth, Australia. There was a slight nip in the air on the flight deck. I was struck by the color of the ocean; it wasn’t the fluorescent blue of the open Pacific. It was dark and inky, heavy looking. A long period ground swell marched towards us from the southwest, from an unseen storm deep in the southern Indian Ocean. I’m a surfer, and sometimes I could watch these swells for hours. They were growing in size as the day wore on. Some waves were 25-30 feet high. For the first time in the deployment it actually felt like we were on a ship, as the 1,100-foot long Nimitz see-sawed over these swells.
The flight crews, despite being out of the war zone, were as busy as ever now. This stretch of the Indian Ocean was prime territory for Blue Water Flight Ops. We were about 1,000 miles from the nearest ground-based landing strip. If any pilot were to have a problem landing, the only option would be to ditch the plane in the ocean. Training in these conditions was a badge of honor for all the pilots onboard. If you could stick a landing on a pitching deck, you had the right stuff.
That afternoon, it was clear the waves were getting bigger. In our stateroom, we had to tie down our equipment cases lest they fly across the room. I continued to hear the deafening thud of the #3 catapult as plane after plane launched off the deck. I was not sure how the pilots could land in such high seas, and I wanted to see for myself so I grabbed the camera gear and hit the flight deck with assistant Andy Scerbo. We positioned ourselves near the end of the landing strip, where the landing cables wrench the 50,000-pound Super Hornets to a stop.
Looking aft at the LSO’s (Landing Signal Officers) stationed at the stern, I saw what looked like a carnival ride. When a big swell came under the bow of the Nimitz, the stern would tip down at such an angle, it seemed everything on deck would slide into the drink. Then as the same wave made it’s way back, the stern see-sawed up the other way, 50, 60, 70 feet, obscuring the horizon.
I looked back at an approaching F-18 through the camera, as I had many times by now on this deployment. You could usually pick up the approaching plane on final, a few miles away. The mere facts of a carrier landing are extraordinary the planes approaching at 150 knots are hitting a moving landing strip a few hundred feet long, at sea. And they’re being brought to a stop by a heavy cable on the deck that catches a tailhook on the plane. They call it a controlled crash. In quiet seas, this process seems almost routine.
But now, as I tracked the first F-18 in the viewfinder, a set of big swells comes under us. As the first wave passes, the stern rises, and rises, until the horizon, and then the F-18 is obscured from view. I was shocked. The plane was on final approach not to the landing deck, but towards the ship’s stern, which is suspended in the air. As another swell comes under the bow, the stern falls away, and the LSO’s wave off the approaching F-18. The angle is too steep to land. The next F-18 manages to touch the deck, but misses the restraining wire, and does a “touch and go”. Finally an F-18 manages to land, and stops yards away from us. The pilot is ecstatic, and it’s all hugs and handshakes with his ground crew. This was emotion we never saw during the grind of the Persian Gulf. It seems that just one in five planes is able to land successfully. Pilots who get waved off or do touch and go’s, go around for a second try, a third try. Some get low on fuel and rendezvous with the F-18 refueling tanker for an airborne fill-up.
Meanwhile, on the “bow cats” more planes are being launched into the sky. Towards sunset, I realize a significant number of jets have taken off. The swell has increased further. Now the precarious landings we“ve been watching on a clear blue afternoon will be taking place at night. As we go below deck, we prepare for the most dramatic operations of the deployment, as the pilots we’ve come to know over the past four months try to reach their floating home, one by one, over the black waters of the Indian Ocean.
That night, after hours of bolters, wave-offs followed by white-knuckle landings, there is one last pilot airborne, Dave “Sex” Fravor, Skipper of the Black Aces. He’s flying the refueling tanker this evening, providing a safety net for his mates who are running low on fuel. By design, the tanker pilot is the last pilot airborne. So Fravor himself really has no safety net. If he lands, then he’ll have a cigar with the Admiral later on; if he can’t, he’ll have to eject into the ocean and ditch his $40 million jet.
In the flight control room, we watch the Platt camera monitor showing Fravor’s approach. It’s dead silent. The deck is still pitching wildly but he somehow is able to stay dead-on target. When Fravor threads the needle and lands, there is an uproar. Everyone’s made it home safe. Fravor gets that cigar with the Admiral, claiming he landed on autopilot. To this day, I’m not sure I believe him.
Axel Baumann: Cinematographer
I jumped at the chance anything to get a little break from being stuck onboard. When we reached altitude, the door opened. Beyond the edge of the plank, sky and ocean seemed to go on forever. To my left and right the propellers roared and the plane took a sharp right turn to reveal the hard light of the midday sun hitting the ocean down below. I crawled gingerly towards the large opening, camera in hand, buffeted by turbulence. The Nimitz was a tiny speck in this enormous expanse. We made a number of passes but it was very difficult to get a good, steady shot because of so much turbulence. But it sure was fun trying.