After a relentless burst of activity during the 1970s (a stretch that produced 15 features in 11 years, including such enduring favorites as Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and 3 Women), Robert Altman slowed down considerably in the ‘80s, turning his attention to a series of stage plays which he adapted for both television and the big screen. Between 1982 and 1988, Altman drew almost exclusively on theatrical material—taking a break only to helm that surreal hodgepodge of a “teen comedy” O.C. and Stiggs, based, at least nominally, on a National Lampoon serial—with results that occasionally feel more like filmed theater than cinema, but which, at their best (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), often transcend what seem to be less than inspired source material.
Not that Altman never picked top-shelf models, but for every Pinter and Sam Shepard adaptation, there’s a less accomplished work by Ed Graczyk or Christopher Durang (the latter the source of the director’s woeful Beyond Therapy). In that context, Streamers, David Rabe’s 1975 army-barracks-as-a-microcosm-of-America play, would probably rank somewhere in the middle, just as Altman’s allegedly faithful 1983 adaptation figures as about par-level product for the director’s 1980s output.
Set on the eve of Vietnam, Streamers revolves around four soldiers who wait in their barracks for eventual deployment, passing the time drinking, reflecting on their past, and learning to live (or not) with people who come from vastly different backgrounds than themselves. Whereas Billy (Matthew Modine), a philosophizing white kid from Wisconsin, and Roger (David Alan Grier), a good-natured black soldier, get along just fine, they don’t know what to make of Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein), a Manhattan sophisticate who they don’t want to believe is gay (perhaps, at least in Billy’s case, because he might have to acknowledge his own homosexual tendencies), despite the fact that he makes frequent come-ons to his bunkmates and skirts dangerously retrograde stereotypes of queer behavior. When Carlyle (Michael Wright), a half-mad, jive-talking African-American soldier starts visiting the barracks, deliberately inciting the existing tensions by forcing Roger to assert his role as a black man and by alternately gay-baiting and soliciting Richie, the film’s nearly endless catalogue of buried demons gets predictably dragged to the fore.
The film’s flaws are more than a little obvious—and likely derived in large part from the play. For all the director’s zooming in and shooting through windows and into mirrors, the production feels hopelessly stagy, but given the one-room setting and its magnifying of the screenplay’s inherent claustrophobia, this staginess actually works in the film’s favor. Rather, especially in the retrospect of 27 (film) or 35 (play) years, Streamers‘s discussions of race and sexuality don’t hold up particularly well, their effect dissipated by a certain quaintness in the play’s understanding of homosexuality, by Rabe’s desire to pack as much socially relevant material into his work as it’ll take, and by Altman’s penchant for tinting his minority characters (Richie, Carlyle) with ugly stereotyped traits.
But what elevates the film above a dated topical discussion is Altman’s imagining of the army barracks as a hothouse environment where tensions and fears play out in oddly manic outbursts—and his direction of his actors accordingly. The filmmaker, following Rabe, conceives of the army base as a testing ground for the American experiment, where a diverse group of people is forced to come together in a spirit of mutual beneficence. In the wake of Vietnam (or Reagan), however, such an experiment must result in failure, so that, while Altman allows for moments of kindness between the characters, the final result can only be a meltdown as potentially apocalyptic as it is inevitable.
The characters’ typical response to the barracks environment is to enact a round of drunken antics and emit offhand outbursts, and from an early scene in which Matthew Modine and David Alan Grier spontaneously begin chanting “Airborne! Airborne!” and stamping their feet in time, to the gin-laced wartime reenactments of a pair of veteran officers which quickly devolve into sobbing reminiscence, Altman peppers his film with a series of almost Cassavetian instances of emotive, repetitive utterances. No one’s immune from this case of the hysterics: Even such a seemingly insensitive character as Carlyle has his own moment of breakdown, collapsing in a drunken heap on the floor and tearfully, violently bemoaning his fate. By the time the film moves to its almost painfully overheated finale, the way has been fairly well paved by Altman’s establishment of an environment in which moments of excess threaten to force itself themselves into the world at any given moment. In fact, the whole film trades on these instances of raw hysteria—appropriate, in the end, to a work dedicated to showing the upshot of the nation’s still-festering racial, economic and sexual divides as well as of a country that seems, now as then, perpetually on the brink of warfare.