Hector Bloom (William Tepper) is a college basketball player, and a good one at that, so good in fact that he could very easily turn professional if he wanted to. But turmoil is brewing in his mind, because this is the era of social unrest what with the Vietnam War sending all those young men caught in the draft to East Asia, a mood which is summed up when Hector is playing an important game one night and his roommate friend Gabriel (Michael Margotta) sabotages the event with his cohorts to stage a heavy-handed protest complete with combat fatigues and guns. So which way should he go? Join the revolution or stick to his vocation?
Drive, He Said (a title taken from the Robert Creeley poem Margotta recites at the beginning) was one of those movies which happened along in the wake of the enormously important Easy Rider. That counterculture classic was so successful the studios wanted a piece of the action, therefore a bunch of talents involved and associated with it were recruited to make their own films, unusually offered carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. But none of them made the impact that the big hit had, and indeed many of them, such as this little item, were utter flops, so the New Hollywood of the seventies may have been well underway, but it was still finding its feet around 1970-1.
Jack Nicholson, however, never really looked back as this was his directorial debut; he didn't go on to a glittering career behind the camera, only helming a small handful of projects, but in front of it he was a megastar from now on, with the seventies a golden era for him as he offered many of the best performances of the era, and not only that but was lauded critically and publicly to boot. Drive, He Said was considered, if it was considered at all, as a minor blip on that rise to adulation, and was very difficult to see for a long time, with only the odd television showing appearing to more often than not baffle anyone wondering idly what a movie directed by Nicholson would look like.
He was a well-known fan of basketball, and that love of the sport is evident in every frame where he shows it being played, which is fairly often, not as interludes but as a way of propelling the story forward as Hector's crisis in confidence leads him to alienate others just as he is alienated. There were a number of campus dramas and comedy-dramas being released around this time which ranged from putting across the impression of the middle-aged squares trying to get with the kids and their revolutionary ways for monetary reasons, to a select few which the target audience truly felt had something to say to them. These efforts are what can easily be dismissed as "of their time" by the less sympathetic, yet such was the strength of feeling, that sense of impending doom and loss of direction, maybe they deserve another chance.
And none more than Drive, He Said, which far from being the out of control mishmash it was accused of, was actually one of the finest movies ever directed by one of the biggest stars. You don't have to have been there to get a strong impression of the milieu Nicholson was appealing to, as the spirit of the age was vividly portrayed: that fear everything was about to collapse around your ears if you didn't stand up to somebody in charge, anybody, since the authorities were more and more appearing to be the enemy, was extremely palpable here. Hector rebels against his coach, superbly played by Bruce Dern in one of his most obsessed performances, and his professor (Robert Towne, who also spruced up the script with Terrence Malick) by sleeping with his just as frustrated wife (Karen Black), as Gabriel tries to dodge the draft by seeming insane, so much so that he actually goes insane. Filled with weird, off kilter scenes, Nicholson updated Jeremy Larner's novel (with Larner himself) to create a terrific encapsulation of those troubled times, funny, unsettling and powerful. Music by David Shire.