Most articles about the state of American movies in the 1980s feature writers bitching and moaning about how the era was built on sequels and action-packed, plot-deprived blockbusters. They may have a point. Independent films really didn’t become relevant (again) until sex, lies, and videotape, which was released in 1989. Miramax was still growing.
Something good did come out of the decade: a slew of great date movies. Not surprisingly, there was a formula to it. The typical woman would get a love story usually featuring a hunky, emotionally lost male lead. The typical man would get a macho storyline featuring slapstick, sports, violence, or male bonding. Sometimes he got to see bare breasts. It all led to movies that didn’t require three days of negotiation: Hoosiers, Witness, Field of Dreams, Tootsie, Say Anything (for the music geek subset), and the John Hughes stuff for the teens.
All of those movies worked because they were entertaining and they went beyond the parts of the equation. One such movie has been re-released on DVD, Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), and the timing couldn’t be better. I can’t remember the last good, to use the popular definition, date movie. This one takes place in and around a Navy officer training school in Washington State, where Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) has decided to break away from his philandering, alcoholic dad (Robert Loggia). Given Zack’s pedigree and the demands of the program — the candidates drop out like Britney Spears at a geography bee — it’s a long haul. It becomes more so when Zack starts a romance with Paula (Debra Winger), a young factory worker who wants more than a blue-collar lifestyle.
Paula could easily trap Zack through pregnancy, a tactic used by other ‘Puget debs.’ He’s fighting a case of love-and-leave ‘em genetics. Plus, he’s only in the Pacific Northwest for 13 weeks. Screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart smartly toys with the relationship, having it go back and forth with the characters’ burgeoning maturity. You’re never quite sure what’s going on: the love may last or tradition may undercut it. Gere and Winger are terrific despite the fact they reportedly got along like Cain and Abel. (Note: Winger didn’t have nice things to say about Hackford, either.)
Two supporting actors stand out: David Keith as Zack’s training school buddy, whose discovery of his true self comes at the worst possible time, and Louis Gossett Jr., who deservedly won an Academy Award for his performance and then did nothing of note afterwards. As the school’s drill sergeant, he challenges, insults, and bends Zack to the point of breaking. Both Keith and Gossett play pivotal roles as they help Zack (Keith as the best friend archetype; Gossett as the stoic father figure) become a man.
Zack’s time with Paula and his time in officer training lead to a coming of age story featuring adults. And it works because — like most good romantic comedies — the emotions on display aren’t false. There’s a familiarity to these characters and their roles that goes beyond the Hollywood trappings. Its famous ending may be hokey, but in a movie this honest, it couldn’t feel more right.
The DVD includes a commentary track, a retrospective featurette, and a handful of additional featurettes about the making of the film.