by A.J. Hakari
When I started getting heavy into film as a kid and reading up on directors, I’d always heard that the 1980s were a nightmare for Robert Altman. It’s easy to make that assumption, as the man was sandwiched between his artistic/financial successes in the ’70s and his comeback greats in the early ’90s. It was a time of experimentation that yieled both underseen triumphs and ambitious failures, like 1983’s Streamers. This is a film that’s not exactly a pleasure to watch, but I’m sort of glad it exists, a mixture of fierce acting and interesting ideas that unfortunately comes off as ten pounds of stagey in a two-pound bag.
Adapted by David Rabe from his own Broadway play, Streamers takes place entirely in the barracks of three young troops awaiting deployment to Vietnam. Billy (Matthew Modine) is the good little soldier, Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein) is the one-man snark parade, and Roger (David Alan Grier) is the mediator trying to make sure they don’t kill one another. Tensions are palpable enough, as Billy constantly prods Richie to open up about his sexuality, but the keg is officially lit by Carlyle (Michael Wright), a stray from another company. Scared and unable to face the prospect of dying in battle, Carlyle instead chooses to incite discord amongst his new pals, in a nihilistic effort to avoid the war and take everyone he can down with him.
I can appreciate Streamers for being unconventional in just about every aspect. It’s certainly a change of pace for Altman, from whom his audience grew to expect countless actors and lines rapidly delivered over other lines. But Streamers comes with an enclosed setting, a tiny cast (four main players and a few background guys), and audible, robust speeches given all around. Even as a “Vietnam movie,” the conflict is rarely mentioned explicitly, nor does it show you any battlefield carnage and leave you with an obvious “war is bad” message. Its means are more subtle than that, using racial, sexual, and social divides to convey the idea that none of it hardly matters when you’re being blown up by someone else.
But at the same time, Streamers is a theatrical adaptation that suffers for never shaking its theatrical attitude. Everyone’s always projecting and posturing for an audience that isn’t there, waiting to feed off of live energy where none is around. It goes to show you how different the worlds of screen and stage are, and while Rabe’s words may strike you as profound in a live arena, film renders them awkward and almost completely unnatural. The acting reflects this, the worst offender of which is Wright, whose Carlyle is performed with Kirk Lazarus levels of ham and not an ounce of realism. Modine and Grier do better, nicely steering their characters away from becoming total stereotypes, though Lichtenstein comes close to overdosing on the cattiness quite a few times.
I like that Altman chose a more intimate route than usual with Streamers, and he pulled off an even more pared-down production to great effect with Secret Honor the following year. But although the points it makes don’t go unnoticed or unappreciated, the film’s presentation inadvertently does just about everything it can to take you out of the moment and keep you out.