Streamers isn’t a movie for everyone. This 1983 Robert Altman film, based on the play by David Rabe, delves into a variety of thematic issues that many viewers may find too dark. Issues such as homosexuality in the military, race and class, violence and suicide are all explored and discussed in the film.
Streamers takes place over the course of several weeks inside an Army barracks on a base in the U.S. The soldiers inside the barracks are either awaiting deployment to Vietnam, or have been taken off-duty for one reason or another. Either way, this mismatched group of men find themselves dealing with a lot more than just military operations. The dialogue and emotions run much deeper than that.
Despite their stark differences, three of the men inside the barracks develop a special bond, a bond that begins to disintegrate when a soldier from another barrack, Carlyle, shows up and starts to make trouble. His intrusion only leads to things becoming more erratic and disturbed than ever as events ratchet up to the final shocking moments of this military-based story.
Since it is an adaptation of a play, all of the action takes place inside the barracks. The camera never moves beyond the barrack’s walls even if the characters do. It’s a very claustrophobic and insular setting for the film, which also means that we are introduced to very few characters. I liked how this was done. Much like in the film Doubt (also based on a play), we were given a small cast to empathize with and examine.
The four main characters, Billy, Richie, Roger, and Carlyle all have their hang-ups about each other. The main issues at play are Richie’s homosexuality and Roger and Carlyle’s race (African-American). Each issue is explored at times in very intense and at times disturbing ways that some may find a bit off-putting.
What I liked about the exploration of these issues was that the dimensionality of the characters allows us to understand the points of view being expressed and also to see the inner-workings of these men as they cope and struggle with the issues presented.
Rounding out the cast are two drunk Sergeants, Cokes and Rooney, who provide both comic relief and also a stark contrast between the young men in the barracks. These two military men have been in combat, have stared death in the face, and have been shot and have killed in the line of duty. The moments with these two are powerful and moving, especially Cokes’ final monologue at the end of the film.
Director Robert Altman is best-known for the 1970 film M*A*S*H, which would later be turned into a long-running and wildly popular TV series of the same name in 1972. According to the interviews found on the Streamers DVD, Altman never told actors how to act; he merely conducted them like a conductor guiding an orchestra. His skills are on full display in Streamers as actors Matthew Modine, David Alan Grier, Frank Dzundza, Guy Boyd, Michael Wright, and Mitchell Lichtenstein blend into a cohesive, although disjointed, cast of characters.
This special edition DVD contains three featurettes that explore the production of the film as well as the play on which it is based. Along with the cast of the film version, the two actors who played Roger and Billy in the original theatrical production of the play are also interviewed. Many of you will recognize the actor who played Billy in the play, Bruce Davison, as Senator Kelly from the X-Men series.
While not recommended for everyone, Streamers is definitely a must-see for fans of Robert Altman, or anyone who’s interested in more character-driven films like Doubt. And while it’s not filled with jokes, CG, or explosions, it does take you on a rollercoaster ride that will stick with you for hours afterward.
On DVD January 19, 2009!