Lou Gossett Jr. What a performance. He imprints himself on our brains just like the new recruits he berates, pushes, and toughens on a daily basis. He’s inscrutable. We want to hate him. We want him to get his comeuppance. Yet in the end, we cannot help but appreciate him. We are just like one of his recruits and that’s, in part, why this story works at all.
We’re there in the mud and the mire. We hold our breath in preparation for the latest inspection. Every drill has some consequence. Each failure and each conquest is like one of our own. And the desire for intimacy and love is in us too. This film takes many of its characters through the hell that is Aviation Officer Candidate School. But isn’t it the most trying times that remain the most memorable and truly mold us as human beings? It seems so.
It’s easy not to like the coolly defiant Richard Gere as Zach, even when we know a bit of his past because he can be distant at times. But we learn more about who he really is and as with most people, he grows on us. The same goes with his best buddy Sid (Keith David) who is well-liked by everyone but realizes he’s been living his life all wrong. Likewise, Paula (Debra Winger) and Lynette (Lisa Blount) the two bodacious gals who have dreamed of dancing the night away with a pair of up and coming cadets, have their own set of problems.
Watching An Officer and a Gentleman, it is rather amazing that it succeeds as part romance, part war drama since all its action takes place at an air force cadet school. They haven’t even reached the front yet. There are no explosions or bombs bursting in air. It even shares similarities with Fred Zinneman’s star-studded From Here to Eternity (1953) years before. But that story had far more star power and a climatic event like Pearl Harbor to build the story around. Here there’s nothing quite like that. But it’s not really needed. We are reminded that mankind is inherently interesting and when you throw a bunch of them together under duress it’s a formula for heightened emotions.
Certainly, the film functions because it has all the necessary components, a rebellious hero played by Gere, troubled pasts, innumerable odds and the like. However, breaking the film down to its simple plot points hardly gives the film the credit it is due. There are so many intangibles when you watch something on the screen that really gets to your gut. It’s not necessarily manipulation on the part of any one person, director, screenwriter or otherwise. It’s simply the emotional clout that the medium of film is capable of.
As I watch Richard Gere carry his love (Debra Winger) out of her dead-end factory job, rather like a groom taking his bride over the threshold of their new lives, I too cannot help but smile ruefully. This is the schmaltzy ending of passionate love. But that is only one scene bookending so many others. Some that take us in a stranglehold. Others that fill us with contempt or pity. And as with any film, some that feel superfluous. What stays with you though when the screen goes black are the highs and the lows. An Officer and a Gentleman hits them both with ample fortitude.