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Officer and a Gentleman: Special Collector's Edition, An
Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) is a punk from the wrong side of the world who has somehow managed to graduate from a small, backwoods college. How he managed that is conveniently never explained, but then he couldn't be a naval officer candidate unless he was a college graduate, so the script skips over inconvenient matters like that. His father (Robert Loggia) is a drunken lout of a chief petty officer who enjoys whoring around with his son - preferably in the same motel room with the same hooker. Fed up with his wastrel lifestyle, Zack rides off on his Triumph motorcycle to become, you guessed it, an officer and a gentleman in the United States Navy. But of course, this callow youth thinks the Navy game is just another dodge he can scam his way through -- he's going to have to grow up a lot before he can wear those dress whites.
Making friends with "dumb Oakie" Sid Worley (David Keith), Zack still can't leave his hustling ways behind him, setting up a polishing boonies-for-dough scam that could get him kicked out of the program if his tough-as-nails drill sergeant Emil Foley (Louis Gossett, Jr.) ever found out. But of course, this is a movie, so the flip side of Foley's snarling, sadistic personality is a big cream puff who's secretly pulling for Zack. You see, Zack is actually a leader; he just doesn't know it yet. All he needs is a little love and understanding, and he'll be as right as rain. As Foley tries to reach out to Zack, who keeps insisting on being a "rebel" and a "loner," Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger) not only reaches out to Zack, but snags herself a naval cadet for a boyfriend, the prize catch for a "Puget Sound Deb," like townie Paula. Sid scores a "Deb" as well, in the form of "bodacious" Lynette Pomeroy (Lisa Blount). But whereas Paula actually cares for Zack, Lynette is a shrewd little hustler who dreams of living the high life of a naval aviator's wife, stationed in ports of call all over the world - and she's willing to lie about anything, including being pregnant with Sid's baby - to achieve her dream.
Naturally, Zack has to go through many trials and tribulations - both personal and professional - including irrationally dumping Paula several times, before he can get his act together, and fly right. It takes a personal tragedy to bring this message home to rebel Zack, the message being: no man is an island. Having learned that profound lesson, he's free to love Paula, and free to fly jets. Saluting his D.I. Foley, who comes this close to breaking down from the shared emotion, Zack manages to become a team player and graduate the course. Cue the music and the triumphant freeze frame as Zack, now literally a gallant white knight in his dress uniform, carries Paula out of her dreary factory job into the sunlight.
I clearly remember alternately groaning and laughing at An Officer and a Gentleman when I first saw it, but I've had enough experience watching films to know that 25 years can change a lot of things when it comes to movies. Titles you loved as a kid can go sour, and stuff you hated back then can sometimes flower into meaningful films when you're more receptive to the experience. Unfortunately, An Officer and a Gentleman is just as cliched and dreary as it was back in '82. The director and screenwriter utterly fail to provide one shred of suspense as to whether or not Zack will make it through the supposedly grueling training period. Of course he will, and the audience is two steps ahead of the film the whole way. They know exactly what will happen to Sid; they know exactly how Zack and Paula will resolve their differences. Playing like a souped-up After School Special, with an appropriately moronic, uplifting theme song that wells up constantly in the background (always spoiled by the mental image of Joe Cocker spastically emoting this arena-rock anthem), the romantic elements of An Officer and a Gentleman are almost laughably rote.
Enormously popular with young audiences who had never seen a "military romance" before, An Officer and a Gentleman struck hard-core movie fans as nothing more than a sorry retread of every cliche in all those military films from the 1930s and 1940s, starring Pat O'Brien, Jimmy Cagney, and even a couple of Abbott and Costellos thrown in for good measure. When this was pointed out by several critics, I remember defenders of the film saying this was a good sign on the part of audiences who were ready to re-embrace the military at the beginning of the so-called Reagan revolution. Or course that's a false notion, because audiences never abandoned the military - they just hadn't seen very many positive depictions of the armed forces coming out of Hollywood in the previous decade or so. As for An Officer and a Gentleman being somehow patriotic, the film studiously avoids being specifically gung-ho, with the Navy experience used more as a vehicle for Zack's personal redemption rather than as an honored entity of traditions and service that Zack actively pursues. Zack never comes off as fighter for America; his mantra is a totally selfish, unexplained obsession to "fly jets," but we're never given even a peek into Zack's psyche as to why that is so important to him. I suppose the screenwriter felt it was a simple enough visual motif for Zack's desire to rise above the common dirt of his life, but it would have been nice for the audience if they had at least tried to have Zack explain his desire to fly jets. As well, the Navy never even seems that vitally important a destination to him; rather, he joined it on a whim, as he says, and it becomes his last stop-gap measure before falling off into a personal abyss. As Zack bellows to Foley when he's almost forced out of the program, "I got no place else to go!"
Indeed, that's one of the major failings of An Officer and a Gentleman: its total lack of verisimilitude concerning the military experience. To anyone familiar with the Navy, or for that matter, any branch of the service, it's obvious that the Navy refused cooperation with the film producers. The location work in Port Townsend is unconvincing, particularly some abandoned WWII bunkers that look decidedly funky for a supposedly spic-n-span military base, as well as a paltry-looking obstacle course that looks more Club Med than grueling punisher. Big, important chunks of Zack's training are abandoned in the film, particularly the dreaded "Survival Week" that everybody comments on, but the filmmakers never show. And the conflicts between Foley and Mayo are laughably inept. Although Gossett, Jr. won an Oscar for his portrayal as the tough/soft drill instructor, he's one of the least convincing D.I.s you'll see in a film. Giving Zack a supposedly cruel, but in actuality a giggily creampuff of a nickname ("Hey, Mayo-nnaise!"), the interactions between Gossett, Jr. and Gere never take off into dangerous territory. We never truly believe that Foley hates Mayo, and we never fear for Zack's life - as we should in every military movie with a sadistic drill instructor. These are actors playing at soldiers; we never get transported past their unreality (watch Lee Ermey in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket to see the difference - for that matter, even Jack Webb in The D.I. is more convincing).
Apparent softening and tampering in the script abound in An Officer and a Gentleman, with Winger's Paula character coming off as the least believable. Is she a "good girl?" Or is she a whore, like her friend Lynette? The movie wants to play it both ways, with us believing that Paula more than knows her way around the officer cadets (she seems to know the drill pretty well). But once she's with Gere, she's proclaiming she's not really that kind of girl. Well, is she or isn't she? The movie won't say, and what's more, it doesn't have the guts to spell it out. This isn't intended character complexity; it's poor scripting, and Winger comes off alternately as man-trap and simpleton, willing to take Zack's abuse unquestioningly. The less said about Keith's Sid Worley character the better; suffice is to say, it's of the most gross facileness. Instead of "Sid Worley" stamped on his uniform, they should have printed "Plot Device/Victim," and saved us all the trouble. There's a germ of a character in Gere's Zack Mayo, but frankly, after all the narcissistic posturing that Gere summons up instead of true emoting (granted, he has no help from the script), only the most masochistic teenybopper could possibly interest herself in his plight. The only one who comes out unscathed from all this calculated audience pap is Robert Loggia as Mayo's rundown father. There might have been a compelling movie in there somewhere, had the producers just followed Loggia and Gere's downward spiral. Instead, he's on and off before the movie even gets started, and his presence is sorely missed.
An Officer and a Gentleman looks pretty good here, although it was a fairly dreary-looking film when it first came out. I saw no DVD transfer issues, and the widescreen, 1.85 enhanced for 16x9 TVs video image is clear and focused.
There's a new Dolby Digital English 5.1 soundtrack available (with not much speaker action), along with the original English mono. A French mono soundtrack is also available, along with English subtitles and close-captioning.
There are quite a few extras for this "Special Collector's Edition" of An Officer and a Gentleman (I guess they didn't want to put "25 Year Anniversary" on it for fear of alienating the kids out there, and making the original fans feel old). First up, there's a director's commentary by Taylor Hackford. Next, there's a 28 minute new featurette, An Officer and a Gentleman: 25 Years Later that pretty much confirmed my suspicions that nobody involved in this movie actually wanted to make a military picture. Next up is a location featurette, hosted by Louis Gossett, Jr., called Return to Port Townsend, which revisits the town where the movie was made. Next up is a charming, eight minute featurette called True Stories of Military Romance. Next, there's a nine minute featurette on the music used in An Officer and a Gentleman, and a short three minute look at the production behind the hand-to-hand combat fight between Gossett, Jr. and Gere. There's also a photo gallery included.
Cliched and simplistic to beat the band, An Officer and a Gentleman plays even worse than it did 25 years ago. Taking every military romance cliche it could find and shoehorning them into a supposedly "modern" take on love and personal redemption (read: nude scenes and the "F" word ladled over dramatics that were already camp in the 1930s), An Officer and a Gentleman tricked a lot of kids who never saw an old movie, into thinking they were seeing something new and different. Unfortunately, An Officer and a Gentleman now seems more outdated than its original inspirations. Rent it for nostalgia if you must.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.