Thinking about how to characterise Robert Altman’s films, ‘densely populated’ are two words that immediately spring to mind. Streamers quickly dispels expectations of a grand ensemble piece, paring everything right down; a kind of virtuoso exercise in technique. Taking a minimal cast and a minimalist set, Altman turns to a script originally written for stage and draws out an intense drama that interrogates four American identities.

The four are young paratroopers, nervously waiting in their barracks to be shipped out to Vietnam. Billy (Matthew Modine) and Roger (David Alan Grier) have managed to strike up an optimistic friendship across racial barriers, and their bursts of noisy camaraderie and playing army briefly cut through the tedium of inaction. There is the camp and flirtatious Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein), who finds his barely disguised sexuality under interrogation. Add Carlyle (Michael Wright), a manic, aggressive stoner, and you have an incendiary mix of personalities in very close confines: it might only take a spark to burn the whole house down.

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Initially conversation circles around the normal and mundane and occasionally tries to approach the unimaginable future ahead, on the field, fighting a war that doesn’t yet seem real. Billy debates the merits of fighting in cold and hot countries, ingenuously complaining that he can’t bear to go where there are snakes. The officers don’t offer much help by way of preparation. They’re mostly drunk, re-enacting glory days out on the field in between the bunk-beds, but looking more like Laurel and Hardy than war heroes. Before passing out they manage to treat the boys to a rendition of Streamers – the song sung by troops when their chute fails to open. In that moment they really look like boys too, their lips quivering and eyes welling up.

Though the tone is lower-key and much darker than in M*A*S*H, there is still some of the sense of the ridiculous which made Altman’s cult classic so watchable. The wry touches are more sparse, however, and before long he turns up the heat on the pressure cooker of the barracks. The fragile connections between the four soldiers start to unravel, and lines are drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’, with terrible consequences. Before even shipping out, the war zone has come to them.

David Rabe’s screenplay really shines in not presenting it as a crass or predictable clash, giving us disparate and very richly portrayed personalities, rather than stereotypes. Modine is superb as Billy, a smart college-type, angry at having been conscripted and struggling to reconcile his roots and education with his present lot. He plays Billy with innocence and perfectly articulated bursts of anger and frustration. Wright is both compelling and terrifying as livewire Carlyle.

Altman has teased out some very fine performances from the principal four here, creating a picture full of heat and menace. My only criticism is that Streamers is too indebted to theatre to be really cinematic, though Altman’s trademark ‘glimpsed’ shots looking through doors and windows add much-needed dimension to his tiny set.

Setting all the action in the barracks is successful in recreating the claustrophobia of the situation, but with the slow, simmering pace clocking up nearly two hours of four men in one wooden hut, it’s right on the line between well-judged and monotonous, in spite of all the great acting. An accomplished film in many respects, Streamers is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s something of worth here for Altman devotees and those who like a slow-burner.

Reviewed on: 09 May 2008
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Tense and dark alternative take on the Vietnam movie which focuses on four paratroopers preparing to ship out.
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Director: Robert Altman

Writer: David Rabe

Starring: Matthew Modine, David Alan Grier, Mitchell Lichtenstein, Michael Wright, Guy Boyd, George Dzundza, Albert Macklin, BJ Cleveland

Year: 1983

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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