Academy officials hail film for its positive portrayal

View: After news reports focusing on students' foibles, school looks forward to cable channel's in-depth report on `best and brightest.'

May 14, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

For more than a year, the director, cameraman, sound technician and helper were a head-turning presence on the grounds of the Naval Academy. And the midshipmen would ask: Now, when's this going to run?

The answer is Sunday. And at 8 p.m., many of the 4,000 students trickling back to Annapolis after their post-final exam break will probably be sitting in dormitory ward rooms watching themselves and their classmates -- and their Army, Air Force and Coast Guard counterparts -- on the Discovery Channel.

In recent years, the Naval Academy has been featured on CNN and on shows including "60 Minutes" as they have reported on scandals involving midshipmen cheating, selling drugs or stealing cars. Academy officials say Sunday's three-hour documentary -- "Inside America's Military Academies" -- will be a refreshing, close-up look at the positive, human and nonscandalous aspects of a military education.

"It was very clear from the beginning that they wanted to take an honest look at what we do here and how we do it," said academy spokeswoman Karen Myers, who worked closely with the film crew.

Though the documentary focuses on all four federally funded military academies -- the others are the Military Academy in New York, the Air Force Academy in Colorado and the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut -- Myers said the project is the most thorough television project ever done about the Naval Academy "in terms of exploring what life is like here."

"The only time we make the network news is when the news is bad," she said. "And the stuff that unfortunately sticks in people's minds is the bad stuff."

The man behind the project is Arnold Shapiro, who in 20 years as a filmmaker has built a reputation on films that explore the bad stuff. Shapiro produced "Scared Straight" 20 years ago and the CBS series "Rescue 911." His credits also include films about teen-age drinking, drugs, sex and "Kids Killing Kids."

Shapiro said he started thinking in 1997 about exploring the theme of teen-agers doing something better with their lives than getting involved with drugs or crime. The Discovery Channel bought the idea, and USAA, an insurance company for military personnel, loved the concept of the first feature-length profile of the academies and provided funding.

"I realize that the media and the public focus on and hear about teen-agers in a negative light," Shapiro said. "I really wanted to focus on what I call the best and the brightest of our young people."

Shapiro knew little about academy life when he began. "I knew enough about the academies to know they wouldn't accept me, and that intrigued me," he said. "I think the average person in America couldn't tell you three accurate sentences about the academies."

He said he was surprised to find that many midshipmen came from two-parent households and that many were religious, but that only a few came from military families. He also learned that he would be called "sir."

"I never could get them to stop saying that," he said.

The first of the documentary's three parts focuses on how freshmen survive their first, grueling year. Part two looks at how academy students get no time off. The director, Dan Jackson, followed students to their summer training sessions on ships at sea and in airplanes.

The final segment depicts the intense physical, academic, military and ethical training. Rear Adm. Gary Roughead, the academy commandant says in the film: "We hire every graduate. Because we do that, we have to make sure that when we commission a man or woman into the Navy or Marine Corps, that they are ready to go."

Gejuan Sweat, a midshipmen interviewed in the film, says the pressure serves a purpose. "I have learned that you can do more than you think you can," she says.

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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