A Glimpse of Hell (DVD)

“The Iowa is a legend, sir.”

The dramatization of real-life events that make headlines in the newspapers has tended to become the purview of the makers of the made-for-television movie. And they’ve become quite good at it, particularly when they avoid a bloated mini-series and instead restrict themselves to a compact retelling. In 2001, Fox went the latter route in recounting the events surrounding a deadly explosion aboard an aging US Navy battleship and the investigation that followed. The resulting film — A Glimpse of Hell — has now been made available on DVD.

In 1989, an explosion in a gun turret aboard the battleship USS Iowa results in the deaths of 47 sailors. The US Navy conducts an investigation that officially tries to place the blame on a single crew member purportedly despondent over a failed homosexual relationship. The ship’s commander, Captain Fred Moosally supports this decision, but a young gunnery officer, Lieutenant Dan Meyer, is not so sure and risks his own career seeking the truth.

I certainly can’t judge as to the accuracy of the facts as presented in this film of the events aboard the USS Iowa, nor can I judge how correctly naval procedure and etiquette has been portrayed (although I can’t believe drinking on board is officially allowable even though it may actually occur). I can say that this is an unexpectedly interesting, even compelling dramatization of what occurred and the aftermath. Of course, any film that takes the side of the underdog and is able to portray the establishment as an overbearing monolith seeking to cover its hide and utilizing questionable investigative methods usually has the audience rooting for it.

It’s easy to do that here. The film is a compact 85 minutes long, into which it packs a couple of action sequences and develops several interesting if not particularly original characterizations. Veteran actor James Caan, as Captain Moosally, gives a fairly standard reading of a captain who demands the personal support of all his officers, above all else. It’s not surprising that his initial reaction to the naval investigation of the incident is to accept the results that absolve the navy itself of any culpability. From that point on, though, we start to see a more shaded portrayal of the captain as doubts start to creep in as a result of Lieutenant Meyer’s uncertainty and constant questions about the safety of gunnery equipment and supplies. Caan is very believable in the role and certainly brings the appropriate air of authority to it. Robert Sean Leonard, as the young Meyer is equally good, helped by the weight of sympathy on his character’s side that allows us to overlook some of the gee, gosh, I’m a good guy aspects of his portrayal. Daniel Roebuck, a familiar face from numerous television roles, does well with some nicely understated work as the experienced gunnery NCO.

Mikael Salomon provides brisk, unobtrusive direction similar to his efforts on the television series and films that he has specialized in over the past four or five years after a lengthy career as a cinematographer.

Fox provides a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer for A Glimpse of Hell that is very pleasing. The image is clean and quite sharp. Contrast is excellent with deep blacks and fine shadow detail. Much of the film’s look is subdued due to the preponderance of naval grays, khakis, and steel blues, but occasional swatches of colour are very vibrant when they do appear. Overall, an impressive effort for a minor film.

Two audio tracks are included — Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surrounds. This is a dialogue-driven film for the most part, with little use of the surrounds as a result. The 5.1 mix provides a clear, rich audio experience with occasional use of low bass to accentuate the key action sequences. The 2.0 mix is almost as good, differing only in its less powerful presentation of the low frequency effects.

Fox seemed unable to summon any inspiration for appropriate supplements for this film. Extras are restricted to trailers for four other Fox films — Don’t Say a Word, The Deep End, Kiss of the Dragon and Sexy Beast — none of which are even of the same genre as A Glimpse of Hell.

A Glimpse of Hell presents a compact, effectively-told story that should appeal to fans of naval films or true-life dramatizations. Fox provides a top-notch transfer although it didn’t see fit to make any effort on the supplements. Background information on true-life events such as depicted in the film cries out for inclusion. Despite this deficiency, the DVD is a very easy rental recommendation.


The court finds the defendant not guilty. Court is adjourned.

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