Hollywood's Heroes

Glamour and government preen and coo as Coast Guard movie woos Washington.

Coast Guard rescue swimmer John Hall's crisp blue uniform and gold buttons popped against the red carpet. Demi Moore, petite and glowing, leaned into him. "Oh, I meant to ask you . . ." she said, murmuring the rest into his ear.

The paparazzi and photo ops common to Tinseltown tied up traffic and buoyed bureaucrats in Washington at the Sept. 7 world premiere of The Guardian, the Touchstone Pictures movie touting America's "it" agency, the Coast Guard.

Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff, his predecessor Tom Ridge and newly retired Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta strutted past guests and reporters along the runway to the Uptown, the capital's last big-screen theater.

In their wake trailed the film's stars, Ashton Kutcher (Moore's husband) and Kevin Costner, parting an ocean of screaming tweens. The pair fielded questions about training for the movie, which follows a class of Coast Guard rescue swimmers and their legendary teacher.

Hall and fellow Coasties Butch Flythe and Bob Watson were hand-picked by director Andy Davis for roles in the film. In August 2005, Hall took a break from training the actors to make 50 rescues from rooftops and bridges during Hurricane Katrina. Then he headed back to filming.

In the movie, Hall explains that the Coast Guard's success during Katrina was a result of the agency's standardized training. Pilots and rescuers who have never met can jump into action together like clockwork, he says. The credits roll over a montage of black-and-white photos of Coast Guard Katrina rescues as music soars.

"These guys were heroes to me before Katrina," Davis says. "I was just really happy that they were getting the recognition for the role they played. They were the only government agency that went unscathed in that whole thing."

Hall wasn't seduced by Davis' glowing tribute. He says he can't wait to get back to work. "We stepped out of reality for about 45 days," Hall says. "What I was put on this earth to do is to be a rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard. And this was just a really great opportunity to just step out of what I do every day."

Inside the theater, Chertoff casually snacked on popcorn before the movie began. Across Aisle J sat Kutcher and Moore, one row in front of Costner and his wife, Christine Baumgartner. Ridge mingled in the aisle.

Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, which owns Touchstone, silenced the crowd and thanked Chertoff for leaving his lifetime judicial appointment for "what surely must be the most difficult" job in the world. The secretary stood, a spotlight trained on him. Later, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen lauded the film's stars. "Kevin, Ashton, you did a great job," he said before bestowing honorary Coast Guard status on them.

Kutcher demurred. "This movie is a thank you to you all," he said. "We got to act like you because we could never be you. Heroes are hard to find. Heroes don't call themselves heroes, they just go to work. You make us proud."

Indeed, the evening's theme was Coast Guard adulation. The premiere was a $500-a-ticket fund-raiser for the Coast Guard Foundation, a nonprofit that helps with equipment, training and education.

Clancy Brown, who plays Costner's tough-love superior, knows something about government. His father, Clarence J. Brown, is a former congressman and deputy secretary at the Commerce Department under President Ronald Reagan.

"The Coast Guard is a singularly well-run organization," says the younger Brown, who is known for parts in the television series Lost and the movie Shawshank Redemption. "I mean, what they do on the amount of money they get is extraordinary. As far as I'm concerned, the Coast Guard admiral should run every branch of the armed forces. They just pull so much value out of everything."

The movie could be a recruiting commercial. It's two hours of rescue swimmers as fearless, selfless heroes. They defend themselves in a bar against Navy midshipmen who mock them-and win. They get beautiful women. They live a life of meaning. Like many agencies, the Coast Guard has a Hollywood liaison to boost its image on television and the big screen. The Guardian liaison Jeff Loftus left the agency to serve as full-time adviser to the film.

Not surprisingly, the Coast Guard's Allen thinks The Guardian will attract new blood. "We've done a pretty good job of recruiting this year," Allen says. "We are not having any problem meeting our mission or meeting our needs recruiting, but if you can improve the type of people wanting to join the Coast Guard and also increase the diversity, that would be great for us."

Not everyone was in it for a love of the Coast Guard. Asked why he opted to make a movie about the agency, Costner replied: "I didn't start off wanting to do that. . . . I loved the beginning and end of this movie. I thought it had a mythical quality, so that's why I chose it."

Earlier on the day of the premiere, Senate Homeland Security Committee chief Susan Collins, R-Maine, singled out the Coast Guard as the most talented agency within DHS. Coasties quickly are reaching mythical status.

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