I’m three episodes into the 10-part PBS documentary series Carrier, which runs in double segments this coming Sunday through Thursday, and I know it won’t take long before I whip through the other seven. Covering life aboard a nuclear aircraft carrier, this is as expansive a portrait of institutionalized claustrophobia as one could imagine. The filmmakers were embedded for six months on the 5,000-strong behemoth the USS Nimitz on a Persian Gulf deployment three years ago and focused their cameras toward the human side of this ocean-borne Navy existence rather than the dry nuts-and-bolts operation of the hulking “instrument of national diplomacy” — as Captain Ted Branch unironically calls it. Carrier may ultimately be a military-friendly exercise, but it has a gripping, welcome honesty in its prying into how such a massive network of personalities (average age: 19) functions in a discipline-intensive world. The men and women who form the core subjects — from grease-stained laborers and glorified mess hall can openers to cocky fighter pilots and order-issuing higher-ups — are an enlightening, reflective bunch who open up about their backgrounds (often what they’re escaping), the Navy (what they’re still figuring out), their identities (what’s often hard to ignore) and their personal issues (what they’re hoping they can conquer). My father, who was a junior officer deployed on the USS Oriskany in the middle of the Tonkin Gulf when I was born, showed me around the fascinatingly preserved USS Midway in San Diego last year, and for the first time I felt the contours of what his duty-filled, homesick existence were like. So far, Carrier plays like the natural extension of that walk-through with him — reconciling the ship’s status, as a well-oiled bulwark of steel and threat, with its existence as a floating city of cramped humanity.
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