With the American military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” still hanging odiously over the armed forces, I can think of few dramas more relevant to our era than Robert Altman’s Streamers, just out on home video in an extras-laden package. Theatrically released in 1983 – when being an openly gay soldier was inconceivable – Streamers was adapted from David Rabe’s 1975 stage production, which enjoyed hundreds of performances at New York’s august Lincoln Center. One might assume it to be a quaint period piece, redolent of a less enlightened, pre-Queer Eye for the Straight Guy era, but it’s lost little of its crushing bite over the decades, precisely because it deals in secrets, both known and unknown, and the tiny lies men tell each other, and themselves.

Four Army recruits, all greenhorns, sit around their Virginia barracks one evening, the specter of combat looming, as transport to Vietnam occurs the following day. Midwest country boy Billy (Matthew Modine), effete, wealthy Manhattanite Richie (Mitchell Liechtenstein), nominally middle-class black Roger (David Alan Grier), and streetwise, bitter young blood Carlyle (Michael Wright).

Richie is obviously gay, though none of his fellow soldiers seems willing to accept this, at least not publicly. An urbane city boy, Richie fetishizes working men’s attire, not uncommon amongst gay men of comfortable upbringings, and proves himself a nurturing soul, coming to the aid of Martin (Albert Macklin), who has just slit his wrist, though clearly for attention rather than any death wish. Richie feels like a more liberated Tennessee Williams protagonist, cracking homoerotic jokes to the discomfort of the other men, and wanton in his desire to be himself. In a shower scene, the camera lingers a bit on his buttocks, and one can’t think of too many American films of the 80s which offered a glimpse of male buns.

Richie’s presence makes it unnecessary for the viewer to play a “Which one is gay?” speculation, as his fey mannerisms and brazen taunts make clear, unless – as I wondered early on – he exists as a device to throw us off the scent of another gay recruit, hiding his orientation under layers of masculine demeanor.

Billy, raised in rural Wisconsin, has little patience for Richie’s coy flirtations, upbraiding him at every turn, but mostly keeping his slapdowns on a purely verbal level. Still, it feels like this boy’s hiding something, and we later hear the rattling of a few skeletons in his closet.

This was an early role for Modine, who became something of a critics’ darling during the ’80s. He clearly is fascinated in how the military experience shapes – or destroys the male psyche, as he would go on to star in two additional Vietnam-themed projects, Alan Parker’s Birdy and Kubrick’s chilly, brutal Full Metal Jacket. Passionate in his anti-war stance, Modine flatly rejected the lead in the glossy Top Gun, Simpson and Bruckheimer’s noisy glorification of war, which unwittingly set off a few sexual sparks of its own, with numerous scenes of homosocial camaraderie and a bitchy, mine’s-bigger-than-yours contretemps between the tanned Calvin Klein-chic Val Kilmer and star Tom Cruise, sporting a beefy, studly physique that set millions of hearts – male and female — fluttering.

David Alan Grier – in his screen debut – brings some of the comic rowdiness he would later perfect on In Living Color to the role of Roger, a striver keenly aware of the casual, unthinking racism around him, but unlike Carlyle, isn’t beaten down enough to hate, and probably dreams of a more prosperous, egalitarian future, although he will feel the sting of racism before the curtain falls.

It’s Michael Wright’s Carlyle, ultimately, who lights the fuse on the powderkeg. Broken by institutional discrimination — the Army is likely the only place that would have him — Carlyle is the embodiment of the “bad nigga” that white Americans – and others – fear, and he uses that to his advantage, particularly in one tense, sexually-charged scene which leaves Richie cowering in fear.

This taut sequence stirs up numerous troubling questions about their intentions. Carlyle labels the refined Richie a “punk”, but in the same breath, suggests that the object of his disgust is “cute”. For Richie’s part, we must wonder… does he desire Carlyle, a man who represents the antithesis of all he is? Certainly, it wouldn’t be the first time a gay man of privilege had a penchant for rough trade. Liechtenstein, himself gay, would play another same gender-loving New Yorker ten years on in Ang Lee’s breakout The Wedding Banquet, and he seems to have fashioned a career out of these once-shunned parts.

Class envy is a largely unspoken component of the derision the others feel for Richie. He’s never had to actually work, flitting from one passion to another, and seems utterly incongruous in a military setting. Carlyle grew up hard, in a dilapidated ghetto, and tells his bunkmates, through tears of rage, “I ain’t got no job!” Richie can hardly identify with such a predicament, as he’s never needed employment, or had to fret over upward mobility. The Park Avenue Prince, or princess, some might say, has already arrived.

In a sly way, then, Rabe may be suggesting that Richie is, emotionally speaking, the strongest of the men. He’s unflappably forthright about his preference, in an environment where such candor is physically dangerous, and his unwitting ‘rebelliousness’ sets off a chain reaction of events in which not everyone will be left standing.

Notably, Altman chose to mostly exclude non-diegetic music from the film, and so much the better. Regular readers of my reviews may recall my distaste for excessive musicality in contemporary movies, especially that which hammers one’s emotions into submission. Let the audience hear the characters breathe, mumble, rustle around in their clothes, whatever. It may also be, however, that Altman wished to remain as faithful as possible to the stage version, which would of course lack musical underscoring.

The title Streamers references a military term for parachutes that fail to open. In the film, the title is spliced into the Stephen Foster chestnut “Beautiful Dreamer”, with reworked lyrics about combat. This song is given a memorably inebriated reading by officers Rooney and Cokes, played with boozy boorishness, respectively, by now-veteran character thesps Guy Boyd and George Dzundza, both characters tragic figures who would be lost in the comfortable banality of civilian life.

Extras comprise three separate interview sections, the first being a cast-looks-back, and there’s always a certain morbid curiosity about the aging processes of media celebrities. I personally found it disconcerting to notice wrinkles in Matt Modine’s forehead, but I suppose that reflects my own anxiety about a disappearing youth, and I was forced to remind myself that this film was shot over a quarter century ago. Modine talks about a difficult scene, which Altman, in his iconoclastic style, refused to help him with, and denounces today’s Hollywood productions as being too beholden to fixed shooting schedules. Liechtenstein claims that Altman stuck quite closely to the original stage script, which only those who have read or seen the play can confirm.

Also included are lengthy interviews with actors Bruce Davison and Herbert Jefferson, Jr., both of which impressed audiences in earlier stage productions.

Streamers was released at a curious socio-political crossroads in American culture – and sandwiched between two separate waves of Vietnam-related Hollywood flicks — with 1983 arguably the starting line of what we like to recall as the ’80s. The national economy began its upswing after years of recession, MTV-circulated videos became splashy, choreography-filled spectaculars, the automotive industry revved up the Horsepower Wars, and a sinister new disease stalked homosexual men in urban centers like New York and San Francisco.

Although Rabe’s original play first appeared during the ‘Me’ Decade, the story seems an even closer fit for the turbocharged, Cold War-haunted, cowboy-in-the-White House era than the murky Ford tenure, but let’s also remember that the mid-’70s – with the Vietnam War closing — was a time of serious questions about patriotism, the treatment of the oppressed, and the corrosive danger of long-buried secrets. Flash forward to today’s cartoonish hypermasculinity, replete with tattoos, gangsta rap, hulking SUVs, and young men of various backgrounds deriding each other as “bitches”, and one senses that Streamers’ cauldron of race, class, and sexual issues make it a dramatic cudgel for the ages.

The film nabbed an unprecedented six Golden Lions for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival that year, essentially honoring all the lead performers, some of whom, Modine and Grier in particular, ascended to considerable fame. In an Extras sequence, several cast members reveal that not one ever received a Golden Lion statuette. Sounds like grist for another cinematic mill, perhaps a Tarantino caper, but recorded in French.

I do think that Streamers makes an appropriate companion piece for another stage-to-screen project, Mike Nichols’ WWII-set Biloxi Blues, both movies sorting through messy social issues that resonated in both their respective eras, but Biloxi Blues is ultimately a light-comic heart warmer, devoid of tragic pathos or gravitas. Rabe’s Streamers is a smoldering evisceration of male hypocrisy, pretense, racial anxiety, and sexual panic that would give Neil LaBute pause, and only a fool would suggest that, in 2010, we’ve arrived at the Promised Land.

RATING 8 / 10