At a Vietnam War-era army base during the late sixties, recruits are restlessly waiting around for the time to come when they are shipped abroad. However, one has hit on an idea to get out of this predicament: Martin (Albert Macklin) slashes one of his wrists in a suicide attempt and one of his fellow soldiers, Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein) is currently trying to stop the flow of blood. Martin is far from traumatised by this turn of events, indeed he is almost euphoric, but violence on one's person is frowned upon in the military. Violence on others, however, can go either way...
Streamers was one of director Robert Altman's filmed plays, such as Fool for Love, Secret Honor or Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean that he took to in the nineteen-eighties. This one was one of many examples of America's Vietnam War navel-gazing that sprung up during that decade, and many heavyweight (and slightly lighterweight) directors tackled material that was essentially summed up by the conclusion "war is hell". The more cynical may have found a distinct lack of surprise at this, but Streamers was different in that it never left the barracks.
The entire film takes place on one set, which does little to dispel the feeling of watching a theatrical experience, and in truth it lends the production an airless mood as the posturing of the young characters leads up to a tragedy. If there's a catalyst to the trouble, it's the presence of two characters, the aforementioned Richie and the more aggressive Carlyle (Michael Wright), who appears early on and begins threatening banter with the only other black character with a speaking role, Roger (David Alan Grier), who is a step up the class ladder from him.
Richie is gay, a no-no in the army obviously but he has enlisted nonetheless, and as the drama wears on it grows clear that Carlyle is interested in him. The issues of race, class and sexuality are what tear these young men apart, with their situation presumably supposed to be a microcosm of society in the United States at a time when such things were dividing it. This is all very well, but Altman and Rabe design the film as a way to illustrate the dehumanising nature of the military as well, showing in its way that these recruits are being moulded into the methods of death.
And in those methods, they are just as likely to lash out at their fellow countrymen as they are their enemies, the Vietnamese troops they are meant to be fired up to attack. Altman doesn't use his usual techniques here, sticking to the script and eschewing any overlapping dialogue or roving camerawork, preferring to keep close on faces. One of those faces belongs to Matthew Modine, soon to star in a better war movie, Full Metal Jacket, here acquitting himself among some strong performances that unfortunately fail to give the leaden material the requisite lift to make for truly compelling cinema. The message about violence as a self-destructive act as much as it is visiting damage upon the victim is a heavy-handed one, and while Streamers can be tense, it's also something of a slog and easy to forget about once it's over.
[Metrodome's Region 2 DVD has a trailer as the only extra.]
Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.
Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.