The 1970s saw Robert Altman crafting film after film in a style that virtually invented a new cinematic language. He let dialogue overlap and the camera drift as his films made room for characters to push and pull at each other on their own constantly shifting terms. His distinctive approach required a delicate balance of elements to work, or at least work as well as it could, which made Altman’s early-’80s shift into theatrical adaptations less than ideal. Anchored to a fixed script—and often a single setting—Altman didn’t enjoy the freedom to be fully himself. Still, the period produced at least one classic in the Nixon meltdown drama Secret Honor, and preserved some important plays like Streamers, David Rabe’s drama about a couple of long, dark, unstructured days among a group of soldiers waiting to get shipped off to Vietnam. Given nothing to do, the men entertain themselves by telling stories, sniping at one another, and in the end, tearing each other apart.
Matthew Modine and David Alan Grier (best known as a dramatic actor before In Living Color) play a pair of friends whose different backgrounds sometimes disrupt their chummy rapport. Even more fragile: their relationship with Mitchell Lichtenstein, an enlistee whose obvious homosexuality disturbs them—in different ways—no matter how much affection they feel for him. The three get along well enough, however, until the arrival of Michael Wright, an aggressive black private who engages each in a kind of mental brinksmanship. But as the weekend rolls on, it becomes increasingly clear that he doesn’t really understand what it means to push a man too far.
Rabe’s claustrophobic play opens with a suicide attempt and then never allows its audience a moment to relax. Dominated by shouting and revelatory speeches, it’s very much a beast of the theater, and the film version bears the usual pokiness of a too-straightforward staging, even as it benefits from an excellent cast and a few purely Altman moments. In the midst of a monologue, Altman resists the temptation to stay on an actor’s impassioned face; instead, he cuts to another character listening, then shifts the focus to his hands or feet as they fidget or sway meaningfully in reaction to the words. He lets a single nervous part stand in for a whole on the verge of collapsing.
Key features: Some good, though standard, making-of material featuring cast members from both the film and play.