Don't expect Appellate Judge Tom Becker to re-up.
Between 1970 and 1980, Robert Altman directed a somewhat astounding 15 films. Were he a hack or exploitation director, this number might not seem so impressive, but Altman's output included some of the finest American films of that decade—and arguably of all time, including Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, M*A*S*H, 3 Women, and Thieves Like Us. Altman's films cut across genre lines and historical periods; while he became famous for his use of overlapping dialogue, complex canvases, and large casts, he was no one-trick pony. Both Images and Buffalo Bill and the Indians are indisputably Altman films, made a scant four years apart, but they couldn't have been more different in content or execution.
As the '70s ended and the '80s began, Altman found himself falling out of favor with critics, who'd frequently championed his films even when the public did not. Quintet (1979) was roundly panned, A Perfect Couple received little attention, HealtH was never given a proper release, and a musical version of Popeye with Robin Williams was greeted like the plague.
Altman took a couple of years off from movies, and during that time, directed a play, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The play flopped on Broadway and was torn apart by critics, but with Altman's name attached, as well as the cult-fantasy casting of Cher, Karen Black, and Sandy Dennis, it was turned into a moderately successful feature film.
Altman spent a good portion of the '80s directing film adaptations of plays, including some for television. Sometimes, he'd "open up" the material to make it more suitable for film, as in Beyond Therapy and the misguided Fool for Love. In other cases, such as Jimmy Dean, the material was presented more as a staged play.
Streamers was Altman's second attempt at turning a theatrical experience into a cinematic one.
Facts of the Case
In an army barracks in Virginia in 1965, three young soldiers are waiting to be deployed to Viet Nam. Billy (Matthew Modine, Birdy) is idealistic and intelligent, if a bit naïve. Roger (David Alan Grier, In Living Color) is black, streetwise, responsible, and protective of his comrades. Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein, Crackers) is flip and sarcastic; he might also be gay, something the others joke about and ask him about, never really receiving an answer.
Another soldier, Carlyle (Michael Wright, The Five Heartbeats), comes looking for Roger. Carlyle is also black, but he is far more "street" than Roger. Also, unlike Roger, Carlyle is not especially "military," assigned to more lowly duties, such as KP. Carlyle also takes an interest in Richie—an interest that especially disturbs Billy. Soon, the four men are squaring off, and the tensions of race, class, and sexuality come to a head.
Although he was one of the most famous and honored playwrights of the 1970s, not much of David Rabe's work has been adapted to film. He is perhaps best known for his "Vietnam trilogy": Sticks and Bones, which won a Tony Award for Best Play and was broadcast amidst much controversy on CBS in 1973; The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, which won Al Pacino a Tony Award but has not yet spawned a film; and Streamers, the last of the trilogy, which enjoyed a healthy run on Broadway and became the only one of the three to be turned into a feature film.
While Sticks and Bones concerned itself with a blinded vet coming to terms with his life and family after returning from the war, and Pavlo Hummel was a character study set against military life, Streamers deals with soldiers who are about to go to war. Although it fits into the notion of a trilogy, it is the least "Vietnam" of the three plays. The real story here is a kind of coming-of-age for these young men—coming-of-age not in a natural way, with gentle, or even slightly harsh, life lessons, but thrust into manhood in all its ugliness. Although they are about to go to war, it is clear that all are woefully ill-prepared, the horrors of war whispered about like an urban legend.
To remind us that this is, in fact, the army and not some oddly placed group of graduate students, we get sporadic appearances from a pair of officers, Cokes (George Dzundza, Above Suspicion) and Rooney (Guy Boyd, Jagged Edge). Constantly drunk, these long-time soldiers drop in periodically to share war stories, act out some wartime adventures, and generally check up on the barracks.
On stage, Streamers must have been a powerful experience. The script is fraught with tension, the atmosphere confined and dangerous; it's like a powder keg, and the longer it goes on, the closer you know you are to an explosion.
While Altman gets excellent performances from his cast—particularly Grier, Wright, and Dzundza—Streamers is ultimately too stage-bound to have the kind of impact that it should. It doesn't help that the script is awfully talky and much of it just feels inorganic. Too often, the characters are simply mouthing ideas or subtext rather than speaking like people.
Altman chose not to "open up" the play; the entire film takes place in the barracks. There are no outdoor scenes or flashbacks, just nearly two hours with these characters and a few other soldiers in the background. The decision to include these background players, while necessary to create a sense of realism (a barracks is not going to house only three grunts and two officers) sometimes works against the film, particularly at the end, wherein we get a long and violent climax. Given what's happening on screen, it makes little sense that the half-dozen or so other men would sit back and do nothing, fail to involve themselves at all. It doesn't help that Altman occasionally cuts to these other players.
At times, Altman's camera is subtle, fly-on-the-wall; at other times, it's impossible to ignore, liberally panning to a character making a speech, then to the character listening to the speech, then to another character, then back to the speaker. Rather than enhance the dynamics of the script, this technique tends to point out the play's flaws. While it's still a strong piece—particularly in its examination of race and "alternative sexuality"—the theatrics that must have been so striking on stage tend to seem overwrought here, particularly the antics of the officers, which despite strong work from Dzundza and Boyd, just seem ridiculous.
Shout! Factory does a reasonable job with this title, but it's far from a definitive edition. The picture is very uneven, crisp and clear looking in some spots, dull and grainy in others. Audio is acceptable; everyone can be heard, and since this is a filmed play without major audio effects, that's fine, though subtitles would have been welcomed. For extras, we get a "look back" at the making of the film with Modine, Dzundza, Wright, and others, and interviews with Herbert Jefferson Jr. and Bruce Davison, who appeared in stage productions of Streamers but were not part of the original Broadway cast. There are no scene selections or set-up options on the menu screen, only "Play Movie" and "Bonus Features."
While it certainly has its strengths, Streamers is just too much a "filmed play" to be a satisfying film. Altman never really had much luck with his theater-to-film experience, which he spent so much time attempting during the '80s. It wasn't until 1992, with The Player, that the great director once again hit his stride.
Streamers is worth seeing for the performances and as a "period piece," but it's neither Altman nor Rabe's finest hour.
Not guilty, but not much to cheer for either.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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