“Streamers” is a Vietnam War movie directed by Robert Altman (“MASH”). Altman, always the auteur, financed the film himself because no studio was interested. David Rabe adapted the screenplay from his play which ran on Broadway for 478 performances. The title refers to paratroopers who end up with faulty parachutes. Altman saved money by casting unknown actors. David Alan Grier made his debut and Matthew Modine was in his third. There are no women in the cast. (Altman’s previous movie “Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” was all female!) “Steamers” was filmed in just 18 days in Dallas.
The entire film takes place in a barracks in 1965. The recruits will be going to Vietnam. A gay soldier attempts suicide, but his boyfriend Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein) saves him. The rest of the plot has four men interacting. Richie is not in the closet. Billy (Modine) is a white soldier who is best friends with Roger (Grier). Roger is someone who would have been labeled an Uncle Tom in the 1960s. He is in conflict with a militant named Carlyle (Michael Wright). There are no other recruits in the barracks. To roil this already dysfunctional quartet, there are two NCO buddies who spend most of the movie drunkenly ranting. (The Pentagon must said “hard pass” on cooperating with the movie.) The film is mostly dialogue, but before it’s over two of the characters will be dead.
This is a strange movie, even from Altman. It is hard to understand what he was thinking when he decided to make it. It does not really have an anti-war theme. It would best be described as an anti-Army movie. It is harsh on the strict rules against homosexuality, yet one of the characters has made it all the way through boot camp while clearly not hiding his sexuality. Obviously, Altman saw the play and decided to make a movie out of it. The film is very much a play put on film. Setting it in one place adds to the feel of it being a play. And the copious dialogue. Hence the problem, there is little action and the dialogue is not good enough to carry the plot. And then you have to throw in some bad acting. I read where the film was shown at the Venice Film Festival and the entire cast was awarded Best Actor. I was shocked to read that because aside from Modine, there is a lot of scene-chewing in this movie. Add in a plot that makes no sense and you get a film that is justifiably little known. It does not appear in “Vietnam War Movies” by Jamie Russell and that book has 45 movies in it.
The movie is disappointing as entertainment and aggravating as a Vietnam War film. Based on context clues. I assumed the time setting was post-Tet Offensive. The actors have long hair and the discipline is lax, especially for boot camp. There’s a racial tension and even tension between the two black characters. The two NCOs sure aren’t gung-ho about the war. There is a mention of the troop level going to over 500,000 men in Vietnam. And yet, the movie is supposedly early in the war. This shows a lack of respect for any veterans watching the movie. I doubt anyone in Vietnam from 1964-1967 would relate to this boot camp.
“Streamers” is probably a movie that most Vietnam veterans have never heard of. I can’t recommend you watch it. Unless you want to see how far Matthew Modine and David Alan Grier have come. Don’t watch it to see why Altman was a great director.
GRADE = D