It’s that time of year of again where there’ll be kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer, especially the Hallmark Channel. This year, the network that brings you movies so saccharine they’ll rot your teeth faster than the package of 100 mini-candy canes you’ll no doubt eat while pretending to care about decorating ginger bread houses, has outdone itself with a Navy holiday movie for the ages: “USS Christmas.”
Set out of Naval Station Norfolk, the story centers on a military-brat-turned-corruption-journalist named Maddie Contino (Jen Lilley). She loves writing but hates her job at the Norfolk Register because the only stories she really wants to write about are ones involving Christmas — a very sustainable beat in the news world.
Upon being handed an assignment involving a big bank scandal, Maddie recoils and forlornly accepts. But she doesn’t have long to sulk. She’s on her way to the Navy’s Christmas ball to meet her sister Amelia (Stefanie Butler), a Navy fighter pilot. There, we’re introduced to a nameless, blonde, tall drink of water with gold wings clad in full dress waiting at the bar. Maddie spills an entire glass of red wine on his date’s white dress, causing her to run off and leave the pair alone. It’s an awkward encounter that our heroine extracts herself from indelicately after the pilot seemingly insults her for being single.
Drinkless and embarrassed, Maddie finds Amelia who is chatting with Capt. Chet Jenkins (Brett Rice). He served with their father, a fellow pilot we learn who has passed away. Chet suggests that Maddie join Amelia and their mother for a Christmas Tiger Cruise to New York on the USS Polaris. Amelia insists, prodding a reluctant Maddie to come along for the ride.
The next morning, the sisters are eating breakfast at a place called Picasso’s Diner — somewhere they always came with their dad. Maddie begrudgingly agrees to go on the Tiger Cruise, requesting time off from her boss and away from the bank scandal story.
When she arrives at the hangar with her mother, Amelia and Chet greet them. Then, who should show up but the mysterious fly-boy from the ball. His name, it turns out, is Billy Jenkins (Trevor Donovan). Yep, he’s Chet’s son. And he positively hates Christmas, so much so that his call sign is “Grinch.” Because in this universe, Christmas is year-round. To be fair, though, he does spend most of his time in a green flight suit.
As they board the ship, they stop off at the the flight deck and learn that Amelia’s call sign is “Daddy’s Girl.” While it’s meant to be a nod to her following in their father’s footsteps, this has to be the most cringeworthy nickname in the history of Oedipal complexes.
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Fast forward to dinner on the cruise, and the two families are joined by the woman whose white dress Maddie destroyed. Turns out, she’s not Billy’s girlfriend, just a family friend. So despite being extraordinarily brooding, he is single — and we all know it’s every girl’s dream to bring home an angsty aviator. That is, except Maddie. She has a rule about never dating military (as do I, but hey, rules are meant to be broken).
There’s then a reference to his parents being divorced, which leads Billy to continue on his crusade against holiday cheer, noting, “Ships are for combat not for Christmas.” At some point later, he also says, “I’m just here to fly my jet and serve this country.”
A real life G.I. Joe.
The next day, Chet has Billy walk Maddie around the ship, which apparently has its own history museum full of artifacts and documents. She then, of course, stumbles upon an old journal written by a pilot named Sam on a 1965 Vietnam Tiger Cruise, because that makes sense. Tucked within its pages is a sketch of a USO dancer named Dorothy, who Sam fell in love with. Foreshadowing. Billy supplements her discovery when he finds an ornament that says “Dorothy. 1965″ on the back.
Inspired, Maddie decides that she needs to find the couple and write their story for the Norfolk Register’s Christmas edition. So they seek the aid of a senior chief who handles all things Christmas for the USS Polaris. What’s that MOS? Holiday Information Specialist?
The man, whose last name is Frost, reveals Dorothy was a dancer in New York, where they’re docking tomorrow!
Using what little information Frost gave them, the pair spend a day hunting for Dorothy in New York. They don’t learn much the mysterious dancer, but Maddie teaches Billy to love Christmas by feeding him roasted chestnuts and taking him to a train museum, which is, surprise, the last place his parents took him for Christmas before getting divorced when he was six.
It takes all of about five minutes for him to lose his Grinchy facade and embrace everything Christmas. Grateful for having someone to thaw his icy heart, back on the ship, Billy kisses Maddie! She rejects him, because she believes what’s happening on the ship isn’t going to work in the real world.
Conflicted, she sets her feelings aside because she still has no idea what happened to Sam and Dorothy. To add to the situation, her boss called. He needs her story for the front page of the Christmas edition! Back in Norfolk, she has four days to solve the Christmas mystery and save the Christmas paper! Magically, she locates Sam and Dorothy who not only live in Norfolk, but actually owned Picasso’s Diner, where she and her dad ate crispy bacon all the time.
Maddie goes to visit them, offered them the ornament. It turns out that Picasso was Sam’s call sign, something we clearly should have realized because of the sketch he did of Dorothy in his journal. But he wasn’t making money with his art, so he opened the diner.
The eager journalist then asks Dorothy how she made peace with giving up her career as a dancer in New York for Sam.
“Easiest decision I ever made,” she replies, making Maddie uneasy with her decision to reject the Grinch’s love.
Then Sam chimes in about how the USS Polaris is named after the North Star, which helps sailors find their way, and how Dorothy is his home. It’s a metaphor for how it also led Maddie to Billy, in case that wasn’t blinking red on the nose enough to be called Rudolph.
Her story runs, bring tears to all the characters eyes. Maddie then asks her boss to cover the military because of all the amazing stories there are to tell about the U.S. Navy. He accepts.
Then, there is nothing left but for Maddie to throw out her rule about dating military men and invite Billy to Picasso’s Diner on Christmas morning. She gifts him a toy train, and they dance on the patio and share a final kiss.
I guess he’s going to need a new call sign. Perhaps “Santa” is available.
About Sarah Sicard
Sarah Sicard is the Digital Editor of Military Times. She previously served as Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, Defense News, Fast Company, Business Insider and AdWeek.