Saturday 30 July 2016

Movie Review: Taps (1981)

A military academy drama, Taps explores themes of honour, duty and loyalty through a story of cadets who make a stand. The film is in equal measures intense and stretched too thin.

The kindly Brigadier General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott) runs the Bunker Hill Military Academy for cadets between 12 and 18 years old. Bache selects the idealistic Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton) to be the next Cadet Major, effectively the leader of his graduating class. Moreland's cohorts include the more pragmatic Cadet Captain Alex Dwyer (Sean Penn) and the militaristic Cadet Captain David Shawn (Tom Cruise). Moreland idealizes Bache and hangs on his every word about honour, duty, and military ethos.

Two tragedies strike the school in quick succession. First Bache is stunned to be informed that the Academy will be closing within a year to make room for a money-making condominium development project. Then during a gala evening, a confrontation between the cadets and a group of local teenagers ends in a calamity and Bache suffers a heart attack. Moreland decides to take matters into his own hands: seizing the Academy's cache of weapons, he leads the cadets in a takeover of the facility, demanding an inquiry into the planned closure. With the parents of the cadets thrown into panic, a long confrontation with local authorities ensues, with the National Guard's Colonel Kerby (Ronny Cox) entrusted with bringing the incident to an end.

Directed by Harold Becker, Taps is a grim but also gripping tale of pushing too far and too soon for all the right reasons. Quickly finding and then sustaining an emphasis on the passion of young men navigating the treacherous years between boyhood and adulthood, Becker infuses the film with a serious tone that fits well with the strict military surroundings. Despite the good intentions and quality execution, at over two hours the film is too long, and the second half begins to drag with more of the same in the absence of new ideas.

The story explores earnest objectives misplaced into the wrong cause. Moreland is trained to embrace the concepts of loyalty, national service and respecting tradition, and deploys all that he has learned to defend his academy against what he perceives as an imminent existential threat. Meanwhile Shawn is on the path to red beret training where killing with ruthless efficiency is all that matters, and whatever the cause he is eager to release his inner demon. Dwyer is the conscience of the group, not as invested in cadet principles but bound by friendship to stand by Moreland's side.

Becker ties the story together with admirable efficiency, and adds expansive cinematography and visuals to allow the film to breathe deeply from the grandeur that contributes to the majestic aura of life in the military for bright and eager youth indoctrinated early into the culture.

Taps does begin to suffer from relying too much on Moreland's descent from well-intentioned leader to a young man in over his head and not knowing when to quit. There is only so much that can be milked out of Moreland's admiration for Bache, and the dysfunctional relationship between Moreland and his father deserved more than one scene.

Taps features a terrific cast of young actors. Timothy Hutton was coming out of his breakout role in Ordinary People and continues to build his quietly tense screen persona, calm on the surface but struggling to control inner beasts. Tom Cruise and Sean Penn were on the cusp of stardom and prove their credentials by drawing out the characters of Shawn and Dwyer into memorable and unpredictable members of the rebellion. Despite top billing, George C. Scott has a supporting but pivotal role and transforms into a symbol rather than a presence after setting the initial stage.

Taps may not perfectly hit every note, but still plays a thoughtfully worthwhile tune.

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