Maybe it’s just me, but there are certain films that I avoid ever watching. They may be considered classics but because they often don’t fit into any of the preconceived cinematic fields that I know I enjoy or they come from genres I usually know I hate (i.e. chick flicks), I just overlook them even though I consider myself to be a true student of the theater. 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman is an Academy Award winning film and one of the more beloved romances of the 1980s, but because of its reputation as a massive chick flick, I never convinced myself to take the time to watch it. It certainly has a Cinderella romance at the heart of the film, but An Officer and a Gentleman couldn’t be any less of a chick flick. Although the film isn’t without its share of flaws (primarily in the acting department), this was a wonderful surprise and a sort of campy, cheesy pleasure.
Richard Gere (Primal Fear) stars as Zach Mayo, a cocky loner that decides to join Officer Training School with the navy so he can fly jets. Raised by his alcoholic, whore-chasing sailor father after his mother’s suicide, Mayo has no friends, no sense of community, and no attachments to anyone other than himself. But that type of attitude doesn’t work in the military, and sadistic drill sergeant Emil Foley (an Oscar winning Louis Gossett Jr.) makes it his personal mission to either force Mayo to learn to be part of a team or to break him and make him quit in the process. Along with his only friend in the program, Okie innocent Sid Worley (David Keith), Zach begins dating some local girls known as “Puget Debs” who make it their mission to snare a fly boy as a husband. But when Zach begins to fall for the beautiful Paula (Terms of Endearment‘s Debra Winger), he begins to find something to care for in the world.
For a film that has such a reputation as being a chick flick, An Officer and a Gentleman is surprisingly dark and cynical. Although there is a predictably triumphant romance by film’s end, it’s really a movie about men and women who don’t know who they are, that don’t know what they want, and have had poverty, fate, and family dictate their lot in life and not their own free will. It’s about the bonds of friendship and romance and the tragic consequences of having those bonds shattered. And even the romantic subplot speaks to a sense of desperation in the lives of characters like Paula or her friend Lynette in that the only way they think they’ll ever escape their humdrum lives is through a globe-trotting pilot. And considering how this film predates Full Metal Jacket, it’s portrayal of the life of a cadet would prove to be highly influential (but more on Louis Gossett shortly).
The script simply allowed the characters to breathe and grow at a believable pace. Although the film ran a little long, that had more to do with pacing problems and subplots that didn’t seem to go anywhere (until their tragic ends anyways) than it did with any deficiencies in character development. Although the two principal leads were not up to the task of delivering their lines, Zach Mayo and Paula both felt like well-realized and three dimensional characters that traced a rewarding arc over the course of the film. Even if much of what was to come felt predictable from the early minutes of the movie, the trials and tribulations of the heroes seemed so realistic and pulled off with enough honesty that you didn’t care that you could call virtually ever scene of the film twenty minutes in.
Sadly, Richard Gere and Debra Winger nearly derail the whole production. For the most part, Gere nails the cocky, good-looking rakish mercurial charm that has let Mayo get by his whole life but when it comes time to summon any dramatic emotion whatsoever, he completely falls apart. One of the most famous lines of the film is him telling Sgt. Foley that “I got nowhere else to go” and I almost laughed out loud at Gere’s absurdly over-the-top delivery. The scene became funny. But, at least that’s better than Debra Winger who has proven herself in my eye to be a completely flat, one-dimensional actress with the emotional range of Keanu Reeves. How she garnered an Academy Award nomination for this film is simply beyond me. Along with the film’s hysterically victorious ending sequence, Gere and Winger could rightly be called the film’s primary shortcomings.
Thank god for its supporting cast then. Louis Gossett earned every inch of his Academy Award as the foul-mouthed, vitriolic, bad-ass drill sergeant. Until I realized that this film came first, I thought he had ripped off R. Lee Ermey’s character from Full Metal Jacket, but, in fact, R. Lee Ermey actually helped to train Louis Gossett Jr. on how real drill sergeants behaved (since R. Lee Ermey is a drill sergeant in real life). He was a pure, destructive force on the screen but with enough subtlety and nuance to let you know that he actually cared about the cadets under his care. And David Keith was no slouch either as Sid Worley whose own personal shortcomings provide the tragedy of the film’s final acts that lead to Mayo’s eventual triumph and self-realization.
I’m not saying this was a great movie, and it had moments that were downright awful, but this was an undeniably fun movie. It was feel-good in the right sense of the word and only with the film’s god-awful closing scene did it ever feel cloying and overly sweet. Sure Richard Gere and Debra Winger fell flat on their faces, but David Keith and Louis Gossett Jr. were there to make up for it and then some. As far as insightful looks into the life of a military cadet go, you could do a hell of a lot worse than the engrossing character study that forms the beating heart of An Officer and a Gentleman. It doesn’t always have the brains to pull off all of its ambitions, but few films have as much heart.
Final Score: B