Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: A Soldier’s Story (dir by Norman Jewison)


Set during World War II, 1984’s A Soldier’s Story opens with a murder.

On a rural road outside of a segregated army base in Louisiana, someone has gunned down Sergeant Vernon Walters (Adolph Caesar).  At the time, Walters was staggering back to the base after a night of heavy drinking.  Both the local authorities and Watlers’s fellow soldiers assume that the murder was the work of the Ku Klux Klan.  Captain Richard Davenport (Howard Rollins) isn’t so sure.

Captain Davenport is the officer who has been assigned to investigate the murder.  From the minute that he arrives at the base, the soldiers stare at him.  As Cpl. Ellis (Robert Townsend) explains it, the enlisted men are shocked because they’ve never seen a black officer before.  Some of the soldiers admire Davenport while other view him with suspicion, wondering what Davenport must have done or who he must have sold out to earn his commission.

Meanwhile, the other officers (who are all white) view Davenport with a combination of condescension and hostility.  Col. Nivens (Trey Wilson) only allows Davenport three days to wrap up his investigation and assigns the polite but skeptical Capt. Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb) to work with him.  Taylor suspects that Walters may have been murdered by the openly racist Lt. Byrd (Wings Hauser!).  Davenport, however, isn’t so sure.  Even though the official story is that Walters was a tough but fair sergeant who was respected by his company, Davenport suspects that one of them may have killed him.

Davenport and Taylor start to interview the soldiers who actually had to deal with Walters on a daily basis.  Through the use of flashbacks, Walters is revealed to be a far more complex man than anyone knew.  We see that Walters was a man who was bitterly aware of the fact that, even after a lifetime of military service, he was destined to always be treated as a second-class citizen by the nation that he served.  Unable to strike out at the men who the army and society had placed over him, Walters instead struck at the men serving underneath him.  While the man in Walters’s company wait for word on whether or not they’ll be allowed to serve overseas, Davenport tries to determine if one or more of them is a murderer.

A Soldier’s Story was adapted from a play but director Norman Jewison is careful to prevent the material from becoming stagey.  Effortlessly transitioning from the film’s present to flashbacks of the events that led to Walters’s murder, Jewison crafts both an incendiary look at race relations and a compelling murder mystery.  He’s helped by a strong cast of predominately African-American actors.  In one of his earliest roles, Denzel Washington plays Pfc. Peterson with a smoldering intensity.  David Alan Grier and Robert Townsend, two actors known for their comedic skills, impress in dramatic roles.  Seen primarily in flashbacks, Adolph Caesar turns Walters into a complex monster.

And yet, with all the talent on display, it is Howard Rollins who ultimately steals the movie.  As  a character, Captain Davenport has the potential to be a rather thankless role.  He spends most of the movie listening to other people talk and, because of his status as both an officer and a black man in the rural south, he’s rarely allowed to show much anger or, for that matter, any other emotion.  However, Rollins gives a performance of such quiet intelligence that Davenport becomes the most interesting character in the movie.  He’s the ultimate outsider.  Because of his higher rank and his role as an investigator, he can’t fraternize with the enlisted men but, as an African-American, he’s still expected to remain separate from and differential to his fellow officers.  As the only black officer on a segregated base, Davenport is assigned to stay in an empty barrack.  One of the best scenes in the film is Davenport standing alone and surveying the stark layout of his temporary quarters.  The expression on his face tells you everything you need to know.

(Towards the end of the film, when Davenport finally gets a chance to drop his rigid facade and, if just for one line, be himself, you want to cheer for him.)

A Soldier’s Story was nominated for best picture but it lost to another theatrical adaptation, Milos Forman’s Amadeus.

 

A Movie A Day #204: Tank (1984, directed by Marvin Chomsky)


If you had just moved to a small town in Georgia and your teenage son was framed for marijuana possession and sentenced to years of hard labor, what would you do?

Would you hire a good lawyer and file appeal after appeal?

Would you go to the media and let them know that the corrupt sheriff and his evil deputy are running a prostitution ring and the only reason your son is in prison is because you dared to call them out on their corruption?

Or would you get in a World War II-era Sherman tank and drive it across Georgia, becoming a folk hero in the process?

If you are Sgt. Zack Carey (James Garner), you take the third option.  Sgt. Carey is only a few months from retirement but he is willing to throw that all away to break his son (C. Thomas Howell) out of prison and expose the truth about Sheriff Buelton (G.D. Spradlin) and Deputy Euclid Baker (James Cromwell, playing a redneck).  Helping Sgt. Carey out are a prostitute (Jenilee Harrison), Carey’s wife (Shirley Jones), and the citizens of Georgia, who lines the road to cheer the tank as it heads for the Georgia/Kentucky border.  It’s just like the O.J. Bronco chase, with James Garner in the role of A.C. Cowlings.

The main thing that Tank has going for it is that tank.  Who has not fantasized about driving across the country in a tank and blowing up police cars along the way?  James Garner is cool, too, even if he is playing a role that would be better suited for someone like Burt Reynolds.  Tank really is Smoky and the Bandit with a tank in the place of that trans am.  Personally, I would rather have the trans am but Tank is still entertaining.  Dumb but entertaining.

One final note, a piece of political trivia: According to the end credits, the governor of Georgia was played by Wallace Willkinson.  At first, I assumed this was the same Wallace Wilkinson who later served as governor of Kentucky.  It’ not.  It turns out that two men shared the same name.  It’s just a coincidence that one played a governor while the other actually became a governor.

A Movie A Day #20: First Family (1980, directed by Buck Henry)


first-familyLike any newly inaugurated President, Manfred Link (Bob Newhart) faces many new challenges.  The biggest challenge, though, is keeping control of his family and his White House staff.  His wife (Madeline Kahn) is an alcoholic.  His 28 year-old daughter (Gilda Radner) is so desperate to finally lose her virginity that she is constantly trying to sneak out of the White House.  General Dumpson (Rip Torn) wants to start a war.  Press Secretary Bunthorne (Richard Benjamin), Ambassador Spender (Harvey Korman), and Presidential Assistant Feebleman (Fred Willard) struggle and often fail to convince everyone that all is well.

President Link needs to form an alliance with the African country of Upper Gorm, a country that speaks a language that only one man in America, Prof. Alexaner Grade (Austin Pendleton), can understand.  The President of Upper Gorm (John Hancock) orders that the kidnapping of Link’s daughter.  Holding her hostage, he demands that Link send him several white Americans so that the citizens of Upper Gorm can know what it is like to have a minority to oppress.

First Family not only featured a cast of comedy all-stars but it was also directed by one of the funniest men in history, Buck Henry.  So, why isn’t First Family funnier?  There are a few amusing scenes and Newhart can make a pause hilarious but, for the most part, First Family feels like an episode from one of Saturday Night Live‘s lesser seasons.  Reportedly, Henry’s first cut of First Family tested badly and Warner Bros. demanded that certain scenes, including the ending, be reshot.  Perhaps that explains why First Family feels more like a sitcom than a satire conceived by the man who wrote the script for The Graduate and whose off-center perspective made him one of the most popular hosts during Saturday Night Live‘s first five seasons.  Famously, during one SNL hosting gig, Henry’s head was accidentally sliced open by John Belushi’s samurai sword.  Without missing a beat, Henry finished up the sketch and performed the rest of the show with a band-aid prominently displayed on his forehead.  Unfortunately, there’s little sign of that Buck Henry in First Family.

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