★★★ / ★★★★
Waiting to be shipped out to Vietnam, Billy (Matthew Modine), Roger (David Alan Grier), and Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein) spend their days horsing around and pondering over how it might be like to be surrounded by blood and honor in the war zone or how life was like for them prior to their decision to enlist. But in-between their moments of true connection, Billy and Roger cannot help but notice and make snarky comments about Richie’s feminine behavior. Adding fuel to the suspicion is the fact that Richie openly makes references about possibly being a homosexual.
“Streamers,” based on the play and screenplay by David Rabe, feels and moves like it is set on a stage because everything transpires in a barrack. By localizing the soldiers’ feelings of brotherhood, anxieties, fears, and hatred into one place, we are able to get to know them as people with real thoughts and emotions and appreciate, even though we may not agree, why they perceive the world a certain way.
At one point, Billy shares a story about a friend back home who, in essence, one day realizes that he is gay. Richie suspects that the friend in the story is really Billy. As one someone who is insecure about his sexuality, Billy becomes enraged at the tiniest hint that he is a closet homosexual, claims that Richie should take his “fag stuff” and keep it to himself because a “queer” has no place in their barrack and the military as a whole. And because they are close friends, Roger is quick to come to Billy’s defense, making assertions like perhaps Richie has not yet had a chance to run with the boys and that maybe if he did enough push-ups, it would “straighten” him up—as if being gay was something one could eliminate if one worked hard enough—like sweat or unwanted fat.
I appreciated that the film also focuses on offenses that goes beyond just words coming out of someone’s mouth. It is a necessary dimension to its themes. Billy and Roger consistently mock the way Richie acts. We recognize that the way Billy and Roger mimic Richie’s feminine behavior is not only childish, it is maddening—maddening because they are supposed to be adults and yet they only have one definition of how “a real man” should look, sound, and act.
Adding the new guy, Carlyle (Michael Wright), who is forced to join the military and not liking it one bit, into the mix turns the chemistry from bad to worse. The issue of racism is introduced on top an already simmering homophobia which causes undeniable, often unbearable, tension among the characters and us observers. I liked that the script acknowledged that racism, in many instances, is a two-way street. Carlyle is frank about only wanting to be around black people because it is the life he is used to outside. Billy takes offense and cannot help but retaliate with his pointed and equally offensive words, ironic and often painful to watch, because Roger, his best friend in the quarter, is also an African-American.
I found it impressive that the picture is so comfortable in changing its gears between discrimination in terms of skin color and homosexuality without forgetting to explore what it is about them that is so ugly and immortal. Directed by Robert Altman, “Streamers” astutely highlights that although being a person of color and being gay are very different struggles, the two camps have commonalities that cannot and should not be ignored or rejected. The picture’s symbol of humanity and tolerance comes as a complete surprise—to me anyway.
Experienced soldiers, Cokes (George Dzundz) and Rooney (Guy Bord), who exhibit classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, share some of their heartbreaking stories while out in the field. In particular, the man whose parachute opened too late and the accompanying song that comes afterward. One of the central themes being a person’s lack of control—being born with a certain amount of pigmentation on one’s skin, being born attracted to the same sex, the parachute not opening when desired—leaves a lot of room for introspection.