Director Robert Altman here adapts David Rabe’s play about a small group of recruits on the verge of being shipped off to Vietnam. The action takes place entirely in the barracks, and here we get to know African-American Roger (David Alan Grier), fitting in as best he can in a white man’s army; sensitive and gay Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein); and possibly-closeted Billy (Matthew Modine). They talk about and dance around their various fears and anxieties, and then into the mix comes the explosive Carlyle (Michael Wright), whose life on the streets and experience with racism have turned him into someone who talks and acts long before he thinks…
Moving from stage to screen is always a tricky business. Some plays open up to the cinematic world quite easily, while others remain stubbornly stagebound. Altman’s decision to restrict the film to a single set is a risky one, but it is testament to his skill as a filmmaker that it works. He preserves the claustrophobic, hothouse environment of the play, but keeps his camera and editing so active that the work remains visually interesting and properly cinematic. That said, there is no disguising the fact that Streamers is designed for the stage. The script, with its long, anecdotal monologues, could only be that of a play. What would no doubt be incredibly powerful on stage becomes, well, stagey on the screen, and though it is impossible to remain unmoved by the events in the plot, neither can one ever forget the artificiality of the enterprise, and the suspension of disbelief that would come naturally while watching a liver performance is much more difficult here. The result, then, is ultimately more interesting than powerful.
The film is from 1983, and its age is showing in the print. There is no damage as such, but there is considerable grain. Colours, flesh tones, blacks and contrasts are otherwise fine, but in some of the darker scenes, that grain is very noticeable indeed. Does it ruin the viewing experience? No. Might it be an unavoidable characteristic of the original film? Perhaps. Certainly, it actually helps make the film a little bit grittier.
Some aging has happened here, too. The audio is a straightforward stereo, as far as I can tell. It’s quite warm, and is the dialogue is always clear, though there are some moments of static underneath it. Apart from a brief moment with a radio, there is no musical score in the film.
“Beautiful Streamers: A Look Back with the Cast”: (29:00) Many thoughtful interviews here, and the casts in question are both the film’s and the original stage production’s.
“The Stage Cast Remembers”: Here are ten short clips, three from Herbert Jefferson, Jr. and seven from Bruce Davison. The material here is unused footage from the above featurette. Between these two sets of offerings, viewers are given a pretty good sense of just how powerful the original play was, especially in its time.
A heartfelt, passionate film. If the cinematic results are mixed, there is no faulting the performances, and there is plenty here into which to sink one’s teeth.