A Movie A Day #203: Heartbreak Ridge (1986, directed by Clint Eastwood)

The year is 1983 and things are looking bad for the Second Marine Division of the U.S. Marine Corps.  The officers are almost all college graduates like Major Powers (Everett McGill) and Lt. Ring (Boyd Gaines), men who have never served in combat but who are convinced that they know what it means to be a Marine in the 80s.  Convinced that they will never have to actually fight in a war, the latest batch of recruits is growing soft and weak.  All of the slackers have been put in the Recon Platoon, where they are so undisciplined that they think that wannabe rock star Cpl. Jones (Mario Van Peebles) is a good Marine.  MARIO VAN PEEBLES!

They haven’t met Sgt. Highway yet.

Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Highway (Clint Eastwood) has seen combat, in both Korea and Vietnam.  He drinks too much.  He fights too much.  He has chased away his wife (Marsha Mason), despite his attempts to understand her by reading Cosmo and Ladies Home Journal.  Major Powers may think that Highway is a relic but Highway knows better than to worry about what a college boy thinks.  The Recon Platoon may think that they can defy him but that haven’t seen Highway throw a punch yet.  Everyone may think it’s a waste of time to learn how to fight but little do they know that America is about to invade Grenada.

Heartbreak Ridge is all about Clint Eastwood.  Without Clint Eastwood, it would just be another basic training film.  With Clint Eastwood, it is a minor masterpiece and a tribute to America’s fighting spirit.  In 1986, no one was better at glaring at a young punk or glowering at a clueless superior officer than Clint Eastwood.  Even the running joke of Highway reading women’s magazines works because it is impossible not to laugh at Clint Eastwood intently studying an issue of Cosmo.   Clint may have been 56 when he directed and starred in Heartbreak Ridge but he was still believable beating up men who were less than half his age.  (Mario Van Peebles thinks he’s going to be able to stand up to Clint Eastwood?  Get outta here!)  There is never any question that Highway is going to able to whip everyone into shape.  The only question is how many terse one-liners are going to be delivered in the process.   By the time Highway and his platoon reach Grenada, everyone is ready to watch Clint put the communists in their place and Clint does not disappoint.

Reportedly, the U.S. Marine Corps. initially supported Heartbreak Ridge but, in case of life imitating art, disowned the finished picture, feeling that the film’s portrayal of The Corps was inaccurate and the sergeant’s “training” methods were too old-fashioned to actually be effective.

Thomas Highway would disagree.

One final note: Bo Svenson has a small role as the man trying to steal Marsha Mason away from Clint.  If you have ever wanted to see Dirty Harry and Buford Pusser fight over the Goodbye Girl, here’s your chance.

Back to School #23: Fame (dir by Alan Parker)


“Fuck it, if I can’t dance I’ll change to the drama department.” — Lisa (Laura Dean) in Fame (1980)

For nearly a week now, we’ve been taking a chronological look at some of the best and some of the worst films ever made about teenagers and high school.  Yesterday, we finished off the 70s with Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.  Today, we start the 80s by looking at yet another musical set in a high school.  That musical is 1980’s Fame.

Taking place at the High School For Performing Arts in New York City, Fame follows a group of students from the beginning of their freshman year to graduation four years later.  Among those students are Bruno (Lee Curreri), a musical prodigy, Coco (Irene Cara), who thinks that she’s the most talented student at the school, insecure Doris (Maureen Teefy), gay actor  Montgomery (Paul McCrane), talented but functionally illiterate dancer Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray), and self-destructive comedian Ralph Garcia (Barry Miller, giving the best performance in the film).  Over the course of four years, they fight, love, sing, and dance.  They especially do a lot of dancing, which is basically the main reason why I enjoyed the film.

Fame is the perfect film to transition into the 80s with because, in many ways, it’s a perfect combination of the 70s and the 80s.  In its use of ensemble and its emphasis on the gritty lives that the kids live outside of the school, the film is truly product of the 70s.  However, whenever the film follows the students inside of the school, it becomes very much an 80s film, the type where the emphasis is on stylistically hyper editing and emotions are just as likely to be expressed through a musical montage as through dialogue.  With its combination of the kids dreaming in the school and then facing the harsh realities outside, Fame feels like a collision of 70s pessimism and 80s optimism.

(Needless to say, pessimism usually makes for a more realistic film but optimism is a lot more fun to watch.)

Not surprisingly, for a film that made and released 34 years ago, a lot of Fame feels very dated.  (What is surprising is that the 2009 remake feels even more dated.)  It’s difficult not to cringe at the sight of all the leg warmers and big hair on display.  The same can be said for the synthesizer-heavy soundtrack but, to be honest, I like 80s music.  It may be cheesy but you can dance to it and really, what more can you ask from music?  If nothing else, Fame serves as a valuable time capsule of the time that it was made and yes, I know that I’ve been saying that about a lot of movies lately but hey, it’s true!  And I happen to love time capsules.  So there.

And besides, dated as the film may be, Fame does get the big things right.  It captures that feeling that we all had in high school, that feeling that you are destined for greater things and that, as long as you believe in yourself, good things will automatically happen to you.  It captures the wonderful feeling of not only being creative and talented but also knowing that you are talented and creative..

The film is full of hints that the majority of the students at the high school will probably eventually be forced to give up on their dreams.  A popular and handsome student is first seen graduating and full of confidence, just to pop up again an hour later, working as a waiter and looking desperate.  Haughty Coco goes to an audition and ends up in tears after a sleazy producer tells her to undress.  Ralph performs his stand-up comedy and, exhausted after going for days without sleep, ends up bombing.  Leroy is offered a chance to dance professionally but first he has to try to talk his English teacher into giving him a passing grade while she mourns for her husband, who died just a few hours earlier.  It’s actually a pretty dark movie but it’s hopeful too because, by the end of it, you realize that not all of the characters are going to make it but at least they’re going to have a chance to try.