STREAMERS (1983). Director: Robert Altman.
First a contemporary review of the play the film was based on:
"Streamers" is David Rabe's award-winning play set in an Army Barracks in Virginia in 1965, concerning young soldiers who are preparing to be sent to Viet Nam. If Rabe had stuck to that subject alone this might have amounted to something. Instead he decides to substitute sexual tension for by now cliched racial tension, and introduces a flip, half-out-of-the-closet gay character who is pining away for another hung-up soldier, while two blacks, one of whom is crazy and gay, look on. The problem with this is that even the homosexual situations are by now cliched, and Rabe has nothing new to say on the subject. Although one senses that neither Rabe nor his play are necessarily homophobic, in order to attain realism, most of the viewpoints expressed on the subject are negative. The gay characters are ultimately unpleasant. We keep waiting for Rabe to say something different, to approach a new area, but all he does is introduce us to two drunken older men who rhapsodize about "streamers"—men whose parachutes don't open. Even the violence that occurs at the climax does not really come out of the underlying tensions of the situation. Rabe simply opts for the bring-in-the psychopath ploy. The violence may have been set off by one man's reaction to the sex act about to be performed between the flip gay and the psycho-black, but it is clear that the black has a screw loose and probably would have been set off eventually by just about anything. The play is grim, sometimes moving, sometimes frightening, and effective as a melodrama, complete with assorted contrivances, but not the deep human drama its proponents would have us believe.
Robert Altman's film version is essentially the same as the play, not "opened up" all that much and only somewhat "cinematic." The performances, however are quite good, with Matthew Modine as the doomed Billy, Mitchell Lichtenstein as the flippant gay Richie, David Alien Grier as Roger, and Michael Wright quite vivid as crazy Carlyle. The chief thing that comes across is that -- like in a lot of modern dramas -- there is a lot of yelling to little effect, and that the film, like the play, never really confronts its various issues. It is pseudo-significant. George Dzundza gives the best performance as Sergeant Cokes. There are intimations that his feelings for the dead Rooney (Guy Boyd) are more than platonic, but this, like so much else, goes ultimately unexplored. The way that Billy, whatever his issues, is carted off like so much flotsam at the end, gives the film a certain chilling poignancy. Altman was probably not the best director for the project.
Verdict: Watch Brokeback Mountain instead. **.