Enough basic training
Realistic portrayals of military life are hard to find
The Guardian is a rare military movie in that it focuses on the Coast Guard, but ultimately it is also much different from other noncombat films. The absolute need for major conflict results in the same overused plotline, which can be boiled down to two words: basic training. Apparently the rest of military life isn’t worth dramatizing. The recent DVD release Annapolis (2006) is a bad rehash of An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). Officer is a pretty terrible film, and Annapolis mimics all of its bad qualities. Men of Honor (2000) drowns its true story of the first African-American to become a master diver (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in a sea of sentiment. Drying up the tear ducts would have improved this important story.
All these basic-training films must answer to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Full Metal Jacket (1987) — and all will fail by comparison. Before venturing out into the chaos of the Vietnam War, a group of Marine recruits must endure the most rigorous training imaginable at the hands of the maniacal Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), one of the most indelible characters in movie history.
The other mainstay of noncombat movies is the good old military trial. The most prominent example in recent decades is A Few Good Men (1992), a film that overinflates until it completely runs out of gas with one of the cinema’s great nonclimaxes.
Realistic portrayals of everyday military life are nearly impossible to find, but novelist Darryl Ponicsan had the fortune of having two of his Navy books adapted into movies in 1973. Cinderella Liberty stars James Caan as a sailor on an extended leave who falls in love with a prostitute (Marsha Mason) and tries to be a father to her son. Ponicsan’s schmaltzy story, which he adapted himself, is redeemed by the strong performances of the two leads. Far more creative talent, director Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Being There) and screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown), brought the superior The Last Detail to the big screen, resulting in one of the most enduring classics of the ’70s. Jack Nicholson, in one of his greatest roles, and Otis Young are career petty officers who are assigned to escort a pathetic young sailor (Randy Quaid) to a Navy prison. Along the way they begin to feel sorry for the thief, and they use the trip as an opportunity to show him a good time before he begins his incarceration. Detail is a perfect example of a film that shows affection for its characters without sacrificing realism, possibly a lost art.
New on DVD this Tuesday (Oct. 10): Click and A Prairie Home Companion.