Senior Chief Petty Officer Ben Randall of Coast Guard Station Kodiak, Alaska is a legend among Coast Guard rescue swimmers. He has more than two hundred saves, holds all the records, and has been allowed to stay on past the usual retirement age. But then, a rescue mission in the Bering Sea goes terribly wrong. His helicopter crashes while trying to pull him and a shipwreck survivor out of the water. Out of his crew, only Randall survives.
After this, he is sent for some slower paced work training the next generation of rescue swimmers at the AST. There he throws out the usual training regimen in favor of a more practical curriculum, and very strict standards of performance. Here he meets Jake Fischer, a young swimming champ, who declares his intention to break all of Randall's records. This starts a sort of rivalry between them, with Fischer trying to impress Randall, and Randall trying to get Fischer to quit or reveal the real reason he's in A-School. Eventually, they both realize that the other is being tormented by demons similar to his own, and that they are not that different after all.
This film contains examples of:
- The Ace: Jake.
- The Atoner: Randall and Jake turns out to be this as well.
- Badass Boast: Jake makes one after the A-School CO gives his speech. Who then retorts that the record holder was standing at the back of the room.
Maggie: "Dislocated his shoulder, tore every ligament in his arm, but he saved that guy's life. You break that record, you give me a call."
- It wasn't just boasting. When given a chance to break the records, Jake smashes every single record the school holds. Except one. The record for not letting a victim go, which Randall holds... by holding onto a man for 20 minutes, due to a jammed cable, with just finger tips.
Randall: You have a gift Jake, you're the best swimmer to come through this program hands down by-far, you have a whole record board to prove it. You know what I see when I look at it? I see someone fast enough who's going to get there first. I see someone strong enough who's gonna last. I see someone who can save a life that maybe no-one else could. You really wanna honor the initials on your arm? Then honor your gift. Save the ones you can Jake, the rest... you gotta let go.
- This turns out to be the reason why Randall assigns Jake to Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak. Someone with Jake's swimming ability is perfectly suited for the single most dangerous stretch of sea in North America, where dozens of ships are lost each month.
- Bar Brawl: Fischer and Hodge get into one with some Navy guys.
- Book Ends: The legend of the Guardian is told at the beginning and the end.
- Cynical Mentor: Randall.
- Determinator: Hodge has washed out of A-School twice before.
- Feeling Their Age: Randall begins to realize he's becoming more of a liability than an asset on rescue missions, especially when compared to Jake who's fresh out of training.
- Friends with Benefits: Fisher and Emily, until the very end when he decides he can't do casual anymore. Neither can she.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Seeing that the cabling pulling them up is about to snap, Randall decides to sacrifice himself to save Jake. Jake is so distraught over this, that he wants to jump back in to get him, only stopping when the Crew Chief points out that if he did, there was no coming back.Crew Chief: If I do, you don't come back! I can't! I can't lose two!"
- The alternate ending makes it apparent that this was a Senseless Sacrifice as the cable would've held until the two were at the door of the helicopter.
- Interservice Rivalry: The Navy guys are portrayed as being Jerk Asses to Jake and his buddies for no real reason besides this, leading to the aforementioned Bar Brawl.
- Somewhat Truth in Television, as there is some rivalry between "squids" and the "puddle pirates" of the "shallow-water navy." No more so than any other branches of the military, though.
- Restricted Rescue Operation: Discussed when training the Coast Guard rescue swimmers.Randall: There will come a time when you might have to decide who lives and dies out there. It's a terrible responsibility, but it is one you will have to make as a rescue swimmer.
- Retirony: Randall finally accepts a desk job, but when Fischer gets in trouble during a rescue, he goes out for one final run...
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Randall wasn't in a war, but he's still haunted by that disastrous mission.
- Sink or Swim Mentor: Randall literally throws them in the pool on the first day to see who chokes. One does.
- Survivor Guilt: Randall was the only one to come back from a rescue gone wrong.
- The entire reason Jake joined the Coast Guard as a rescue swimmer. His entire swim team was killed in a car crash where he was the driver.
- Take a Moment to Catch Your Death: At the end, Jake is trying to free the captain of a small ship from some machines that have him pinned. He manages to get him free and they take a moment to grin at each other, then a large wave rolls the ship over, throwing stuff all over and knocking the captain dead. And now Jake is trapped in a hold that is filling with water.
- Training from Hell: Half the class is washed out in the first month.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Jake finally gets this from Randall.
- Veteran Instructor: Randall is this to both the class and the training cadre.