TITLE OF FILM: “An Officer and a Gentleman”
FILM YEAR: 1982
DIRECTOR: Taylor Hackford
WRITER: Douglas Day Stewart
STARRING: Richard Gere, Debra Winger, David Keith, Louis Gossett Jr., Robert Loggia, Lisa Blount
The film opens with a celebration… of sorts. Zach Mayo (Richard Gere) has graduated from college. This may seem like a logical and progressive step in a man’s life, but Zach’s life has been far from normal. When he was young, his mother committed suicide, and he was forced to live with his father (Robert Loggia), who left much to be desired in the parental department. His father was a military man, often stationed in the Philippines, and he was also a drunk with an affinity for prostitutes.
On the morning following his “party,” Zach announces that he has come to a decision about his future. He has joined the U.S. Navy, he wants to fly jets, and he is about to leave for Officer Development School. When he makes this announcement, his father scrutinizes the idea and does not believe that it will work out for his son.
Thus begins Zach’s journey through Aviation Officer Candidate School. It is an intensive program that weeds out the weak minded and bodied. Gunnery Sergeant Foley (Louis Gossett Jr.) is in charge of Zach’s company, and he is not about to let anyone slide through the program without a serious work over. Sgt. Foley, along with fellow Aviation Officer Candidate, Sid Worley (David Keith) and Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger), a local girl looking for her own way out of a dead end situation, are each a vital component to Zach’s journey in a becoming an officer and a gentleman.
“An Officer and a Gentleman” was directed by Taylor Hackford, who also directed 2004’s “Ray,” 2016’s “The Comedian” and was the president of the Directors Guild of America from 2009-2013. Port Townsend and Fort Worden in Washington state were used as the film’s shooting locations. According to Hackford, although the actual Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School is in Pensacola, Florida, the Navy did not allow them to use that location to film. That being said, it is hard to imagine the film taking place in Florida. The Pacific Northwest is such a unique setting, and it emboldens the film’s energy. It is cold, wet and grey with hints of blue and green acting as the film’s visual silver lining.
Written by Douglas Day Stewart, the script for “An Officer and a Gentleman” could be considered mawkishly sentimental. There are even a few moments and scenes that feel more like that of a B-rate movie. Nevertheless, there are more moments and scenes that feel like that of a true masterpiece.
Spectacular performances elevate these moments. David Keith is sturdy as Sid, a fellow candidate who becomes a true friend and confidant to Gere’s Zach Mayo. Debra Winger’s Paula is soulful and heartbreaking. She plays her with equal parts of sexiness and vulnerability. Richard Gere is fiercely good as our leading man. He gives an honest performance of a man trying to shuffle off the weight of his past in order to grasp a future. But in all honesty, it is Louis Gossett Jr. who is the true revelation here. He gives a no holds bar performance as a strict and cutting military man who just may have a heart filled with love.
CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:
The title of this film represents Zach Mayo’s destiny. When the story begins, our hero is neither an officer or a gentleman. He is selfish. The walls he has built around himself are so tall that he has essentially closed himself off from the world and the people who inhabit it. The film works to break down these walls from two angles- the brotherhood of the military and the romantic relationship.
The military strips an individual of their individuality. This is seen as the most effective way in which to build a solid and cohesive team. In a way, the romantic relationship also relies on this philosophy. In order to have a successful partnership with someone, you need to see them as your equal, and you must often sacrifice innate selfishness in order to move forward as an “us.”
RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:
Upon its release in 1982, “An Officer and a Gentleman” was hailed by critics. A Variety staff writer wrote that the film “deserves a 21-gun salute, maybe 42. Rarely does a film come along with so many finely-drawn characters to care about.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote that it is “a first-rate movie- a beautifully acted, thoroughly involved romance.”
The National Board of Review placed the film in its annual Top Ten list. It received nominations from the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America. The film was nominated for eight Golden Globe Awards, winning for Best Original Song (“Up Where We Belong”) and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Louis Gossett Jr.).
The academy nominated the film for six awards (Best Music- Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Writing- Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Actress (Debra Winger), Best Music- Original Song, Best Actor in a Supporting Role). In the end, the academy followed suite with the Golden Globes awarding Hollywood’s top prize to the song “Up Where We Belong” and to Gossett Jr. for his stern, but heartfelt performance as Sgt. Foley.
COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:
The most recent film that focuses on the “boot camp” experience is “The Guardian” (2006). The film follows an extremely similar storyline to that of “An Officer and Gentleman.” Ashton Kutcher stars as a Coast Guard rescue diver trainee with a chip on his shoulder. Kevin Costner is his teacher in the Aviation Survival Technician program who molds him into a truly great man. If you are trying to decide which film to dedicate two hours to, it is not even a question. “An Officer and a Gentleman” is a far superior film that deserves the watch.
WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:
To this day, there is much talk about the last scene in the film. Some may argue that it undermines the film’s grittiness or any of the grittiness the film may have been able to achieve throughout its runtime. Does a man sweeping a woman off her feet feel like a real ending to this story? To some, maybe not. But I would argue that on closer inspection, Zach Mayo is the one being saved. Zach may be our hero, but he has his own heroes within this story.
Sid, Paula and Sgt. Foley save him. The relationship that Zach develops with each of these people is a representation of love in its various facets. Zach develops a true connection with each of these characters because they accept him for who he is in spite of his history, and they expect great things from him because of his history. The film ends with a grand romantic gesture, but the point is that Zach has finally accepted his own self-worth, and he is grabbing ahold of his future with both hands.
So no matter the hardships or the struggles we each face in our lives, in the end, don’t we all ultimately want to grab ahold of our lives bursting with passion and excitement? Don’t we want to be swept off our feet by our future? I know I do, and although sentimental, there is still grit in that desire.