A high school swim champion with a troubled past enrolls in the U.S. Coast Guard's "A" School, where legendary rescue swimmer Ben Randall teaches him some hard lessons about loss, love, and self-sacrifice.
Teachers and Students, Military Life, Haunted By the Past, Daring Rescues
The plot follows Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) and Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) at the United States Coast Guard's Aviation Survival Technician (AST) Program. Randall is the top rescue swimmer who continues to work against regulation past the age of 40. Fischer is a hot-shot candidate for AST who was ranked as a top competitive swimmer in high school with scholarships to every Ivy league college and university but opted to enlist in the Coast Guard. The film's title is introduced by a mythic tale: people lost at sea often claim they feel a presence lifting them to the surface, breathing life into their bodies while they are waiting for help to arrive. They call this presence "The Guardian."
Ben, who has been juggling his home life and work as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, is confronted by his wife asking for a separation due to his frequent time at work. During the argument, he receives a page for an immediate rescue. Out at sea, he loses his rescue team in an HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter mishap, and while waiting in a survival raft, his best friend, Chief Petty Officer Carl Billings (Omari Hardwick), dies due to injury, cold, and shock. Additionally, Ben had placed a victim into the helicopter's rescue basket who was abruptly pulled under with the sinking helicopter and was never seen again. Shaken, he is forced to either retire or to teach at a Coast Guard training school to recompose in which he reluctantly chooses the latter. Here, Jake arrives as a hopeful AST candidate at "A" school. Ben is considered a legend with a countless number of saves.
Ben goes against protocol as an instructor and teaches, while Jake is the usual arrogant, but good-hearted student. During the training, Jake meets a local schoolteacher, Emily Thomas, and begins a "casual" relationship, as they both know his time there is limited. Once the initial, grueling weeks of training are over, and more than half of the students dropped (the school's Commandant almost boasts of an attrition rate of more than 50%), detailed instruction begins at the academy. After sleeping at his girlfriend’s house, Jake arrives late to class and is confronted by the waiting Ben. Unexpectedly, Jake is not dropped, although he is punished for his tardiness. Ben tries to force Jake into quitting, but he later sees his persistence and dedication. Meeting Emily in a bar, Jake tells her about him beating all of his instructor's, Ben Randall, records. However, Maggie the barkeep (Bonnie Bramlett), an old friend of Ben's, tells Jake of an unbreakable record: On a rescue at a ship fire (The Aegis), Ben worked tirelessly to save all the victims. With one man left and a broken winch, Randall held the man by his fingertips for the entire flight to land, resulting in extensive injuries to his hand and shoulder, a record that could never be broken. Jake is humbled.
That night, Jake and Emily are at her house and Jake proposes they go on a date. Emily denies the date with Jake to stick to their "casual relationship" but later gives in to the date and they sleep together again. Later, during instruction, Jake's friend Charlie Hodge is unable to cope with panicked victims in the water and is afraid of failing school, so Jake takes him out for a drink before his date with Emily to cheer him up. After ending up in a Navy bar, they get involved in a fight and land in jail, leaving Jake's girlfriend stood up. Jake arrives back at base beaten and bandaged where he takes the blame entirely.
Ben confronts Jake as to why he left his prospects as a competitive swimmer to join the AST program, and tells Jake what he learned about Jake's past: on a late night out, Jake, the designated driver, got into an accidental automobile crash, resulting in the deaths of his high school relay team. After a moment of sorrow, Ben and Jake share common ground, now they both know how it feels like to be the only survivor. Jake asks what Ben’s real number of saves is; no answer is given. Instruction is nearing completion and Jake takes to the role of leader during exercises.