NEW YORK " The USS Nimitz poses a challenge for anybody trying to put its size and intricacy into words.
That includes the 5,000 men and women of its crew.
Capt. Ted Branch, the commanding officer, says Nimitz-class aircraft carriers are "instruments of national diplomacy."
"An extraordinary environment," one of the Nimitz's three chaplains sums it up. "We live beneath the runway of a major airport; we live on top of an ammo dump ..."
And in this world where the average age is just 19, a crewman dubs the Nimitz a "floatin' high school."
The 10-hour documentary "Carrier" fills out these descriptions of life, and duty, aboard the Nimitz. It airs Sunday through Thursday from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on PBS.
"Carrier" was filmed from May to November 2005 during a full deployment from Coronado, Calif., to the Persian Gulf in support of the Iraq War.
Along for the ride: a 17-member production unit that included Maro Chermayeff, the series' director and co-creator (who made PBS' "Frontier House," and "Juilliard" for "American Masters").
Her three camera-and-sound teams shot a total of 1,600 hours. Meanwhile, she said, "We were living in the same racks, eating the same food" as the sailors and Marines they were observing.
But that was only after the Pentagon said OK. Overtures had begun in 2003, with the filmmakers hearing a lot of no's at first.
"We wanted unfettered access, and editorial and journalistic control," Chermayeff recalled with a laugh. Persevering, they got it.
And they got full funding from Mel Gibson's Icon Productions. Listed as one of the executive producers, Gibson was "intrigued" by the project, Chermayeff said. "He was interested in finding a way to see into the war."
Despite the nautical marvel that serves as the setting (and those jets screaming across the Nimitz's 4.5-acre flight deck), "this isn't a boys-and-toys film," she said.
Instead, the series' mission was "to find a way to understand, and to connect the viewer with, the people who are out there for us: who the Navy is, and what they're doing at this moment in history."
Filmed in high definition, "Carrier" is beautifully produced, richer and more cinematic in its look than might be commonly considered documentary-style.
Music has an important role, with a lush, driving score as well as some 90 songs stitched into the soundtrack. In a series that forgoes a narrator, song lyrics (whether from Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, Modest Mouse or the Killers) become the designated substitute.
Or one of them, anyway. With "Carrier," a number of men and women of the Nimitz are granted a showcase to tell their own stories, even as they live them.
Airman Chris Altice, 21, with almost three years in the Navy, isn't married, but back home in Virginia, he's got a baby on the way. The expectant mother is the "sweet and really cute" girl who was working the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant he liked. He doesn't know what will happen, especially after she stops answering his e-mails.
Cindi Costa, 19, is a seaman recruit from California with dreams of someday being a chef who joined the Navy for its culinary program.
"Today I made 25 boxes of Chicken Wellington, 10 or so boxes of pork chops," she reports. "It's a trial."
Shaneka McReed describes her childhood in Georgia, where her father was a pimp, her mother a prostitute. She feared falling into the same pattern.
"I was like, I don't want to fall," she told herself when she reached age 18. "I've come this far, and I don't want to fall."
Her grandmother suggested the Navy.
Now, she says, "We're in Operation Iraqi Freedom. That's all I know."
Aboard the Nimitz, pride and patriotism seem plentiful. But a variety of views about the war are shared on-camera.
One crewman hopes the U.S. can build Iraq "back in democracy so we can get some stability in the Middle East."
"When we went to go look for certain things and they weren't there," says someone else, clearly talking about the phantom WMDs, "I really don't see any reason for us to be here."
Capt. Brian W. Foster is poised somewhere in between " almost literally.
"I was seeking that distance between myself and the actual combat, a distance where you didn't have to be up close and personal with it," says the Marine pilot. Two years earlier, he had been in the initial invasion of Iraq, but on the ground, calling in air strikes. "I was very up close and personal."
Chermayeff acknowledged that "Carrier," set during a war whose popular support has eroded since the series was made, could turn off viewers plagued by war fatigue.
"But this series is not about that war, it's about people," she said, "and, even now, five years into the war, their stories are evergreen. The more that you know about them, the more you care. And the more you care, the more you'll think before sending them into harm's way."