The American Civil War is one of those times that history buffs love to revel in because of how tragic the war was. There have been so many personal stories revealed over decades about various people on both sides who fought the odds to prove themselves to others. Even in bigger events, there were people who had stories like this. Ronald F. Maxwell's Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003) were just a couple from a cluster of films made to shed light on these individuals. By far the most ingenious invention ever made during this period was the Hunley submarine used shortly by the confederates in 1864. Not long after, the Civil War would end in 1865. What's surprising is that not only was the Hunley the first of its kind to be a fully functioning combat sub, but it also vanished quickly after it was brought into the world. Discovered at the bottom of the ocean in 1995, it was then salvaged in 2000. In 1999, this TV Movie was made to try and explain what might have happened the last time it was used.
Written and directed by John Gray (White Irish Drinkers (2010)), the story follows Lieutenant George Dixon (Armand Assante), a real life officer who volunteered to be the leader of the Hunley sub experiment. After a couple failed launches, Dixon tries one last time and recruit a team that'll make the mission a success. Soon he finds Simkins (Chris Bauer), Collins (Sebastian Roché), Wicks (Michael Stuhlbarg), Miller (Jeff Mandon), Becker (Michael Dolan), White (Frank Vogt) and his second in command Lt. Alexander (Alex Jennings). After being given the "go-ahead" by General Beauregard (Donald Sutherland), Dixon begins his preparation with his crew to use the Hunley. The script was also co-written John Fasano, the same writer to some bad to decent films like Universal Soldier: The Return (1999), Sniper: Reloaded (2011) and Sniper: Legacy (2014). For a story based mostly on fact, it's a decent watch. The problem is that it is predictable in a war drama sort of way. It's rather obvious as to how it'll play out.
This can be troublesome for viewers because this does not permit the experience to be very suspenseful. It's unfortunate that that is how the story structure comes across. John Gray seems like a competent director but the execution follows a structure very close to other heroes who were believed to be a lost cause. However this particular issue does not take away the quality of the main leads. Both Armand Assante and Donald Sutherland emote correctly for the scenes required. They are also given backstories that allow the viewer to understand why they are who they are. Before Lt. Dixon went off on the Hunley mission, he was a regular infantryman and was narrowly saved by a gunshot that struck a coin given to him by his wife (Caprice Benedetti) before leaving. As time goes on, Dixon also realizes that he and General Beauregard share the same interests. The supporting cast is what suffers the most in development though. Although their actual histories were unclear, this gave the liberty to play with that.
Chris Bauer as Simkins is the brawn and misses his wife. Sebastian Roché as Collins is frequently combative with others. Alex Jennings as Lt. Alexander gets seasick easy but will loyally follow his first in command. Aside from those three, everyone else has brief backgrounds given just to give them one character trait. One can catch fish with his hands and another speaks French. Not exactly the most important of attributes. Even the individuals focused on more like Simkins, Collins and Alexander aren't that greatly developed. Visual aspects to the film were largely credible though. For 1999, there are some bits that contain CGI, but they're not extensive enough to carry a full act in the film. That goes for things like quick cuts to the Hunley submarine underwater or a few explosions. The rest of what was put on screen were mainly practical sets and props. Clips that had city structures and interior shots of the Hunley were impressive to look at. The team behind making that prop made an accurate representation of it.
The camera-work handled by John Thomas was relatively good. Although the film was made for TV and did not have a wide lens, the shots were nice to look at. Exterior scenes that contained the city sets look voluminous and the inside of the Hunley certainly looked cramped and uncomfortable for anyone to enjoy. Each shot gave what was needed in order to convey the correct setting to the audience that was watching. John Thomas would later shoot for big name movies like Sex and the City (2007) and Sex in the City 2 (2010). Randy Edelman composed the film score for sound. Being that Edelman had produced the widely underrated music to Gettysburg (1993), it's only appropriate that he scored this film as well. Since the story is not on large a scale, the music is not as grand in sound. The tracks contain more solo pieces from either trumpet or snare drums. Both contribute equally though and bring the right feeling for each scene especially dealing with Dixon. All in all it's a good watch but not as unique as one would think.
Structurally the execution is not anything special, the supporting characters are not well developed and a lot the suspense is removed since it is known what happened to the civil war sub. However the actors are believable, the visuals, cinematography and music all help bring it to a level that is doable for a civil war film.