[I recommended this film on the Forgotten Film Podcast when I was a guest. It looks like Todd never got any coverage for it in the blogathon, so I am offering it to you to fill in that gap. Be sure to visit as many of the Bloggers participating in the Blogathon as you can, they are doing a great job covering 1984]
Once upon a time, movies were made about adult subjects and were serious about how they told their stories. While the stories were not always great, the actors and directors and the whole crew seemed to take the notion seriously, as if they were doing a play that would run forever on the screen. These stories featured everyday people dealing with unusual or slightly odd situations rather than end of the world scenarios and villains with superpowers. The term “middle of the road drama” would probably be appropriate to describe those films. Maybe in the indie world you still see these occasionally, but mostly they have been banished to cable movie hell. Today’s film fits this category completely.
The film was written by Steve Kloves, who is best known for writing every Harry Potter movie except “Order of the Phoenix”. He has a real feel for the characters in the movie. All of them could have been a cliche but they have enough to say and emotions so real that they transcend what might have been mundane and it is more lifelike than you might have hoped. The story is set in the middle of World War Two homefront America. Two boys are on the brink of being drafted into the service and are already scheduled to be called up to the Marines in February of 1943. They are excited about going but a little uncertain about how their lives will change as a result. Each of them gets involved with a girl that brings them distinctly different satisfactions and complications.
It was a quiet weekend in 1984 when this movie opened. “Police Academy” was the number one film that weekend, and “Splash”, “Footloose” and “Against All Odds” were all in the top ten ahead of this little film that played on no more than 400 screens in it’s broadest release. It tracked for three weeks, made about six million dollars and vanished from sight. It should be recalled however for the excellent cast, the warm but honest direction and the evocative time period. It starred recent Academy Award Nominee Elizabeth McGovern, future Academy Award Winners Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage, and it featured former Best Actress nominee Carol Kane for a couple of short but effective sequences as the local working girl. Future scary man Mr. Blonde himself has a bit part with some lines that give him a chance to act and show that Michael Madsen is not all glowering intimidation. Crispin Glover and Dana Carvey also make brief appearances. You certainly can’t say the movie lacked acting talent. All the other parts were played authentically as well.
It is a love story set in turbulent times, that don’t seem nearly as turbulent on the small coastal California town that the main characters live in. Penn is Henry “Hopper” Nash. We don’t really know why the nickname exists, but when we see him moving through town or jumping behind the pins at the bowling alley he works at, it’s not hard to guess. Cage is his buddy from when they were little and he works alongside Hopper at the same alley. It’s one of those close friendships that people can relate to despite the fact they are very different personalities. My parents were very close to the same age as the characters in this story at the same time in history. All the local boys went off to war and some never made it back but they all felt a kinship to one another because of where they came from. My dad did not say a lot about the story but my Mom said the boys in Battle Creek were very much like they were in this movie.
It is a love story and there is a brief sex scene which initially caused the film to be rated R but on appeal was lowered to PG (PG-13 arrives later in this year and I will be talking about that soon). Everyone knows that their parents were once teenagers too and fell in love and had sex, but no one wants to think about it. This was the reaction I remember having and I never wanted to discuss it with my parents. The film reminds me of another movie set in the same times but made more than a decade earlier, “The Summer of 42”. Again, you can see how accurately the characters are depicted in the context of wartime America.
Caddie is the girl Hopper falls for and there is a very nice courtship arc that seems right for the times. The tender love scenes are not leered over but reflect the shy nature of small town kids and the passions that they feel. Even more significant than the sex is the fact that Hopper is sharing a secret location that he and Nicky learned about from Hopper’s Dad. Mr. Nash turns out to be a pretty wise and indulgent parent for the times. He may be the most appealing grave digger you will meet in the movies. When trouble comes and Henry and Nic need some cash, they first try to hustle some sailors in a game of pool. It’s a good lesson to learn, you need to know when you are the hustler and when yo are the mark. The scene adds a little tension and humor in the middle of the film and it is built up very effectively.
Hopper has mistaken Caddie for a rich girl because of the house she lives in, but she is the daughter of the maid. She almost betrays a friend and breaks a huge trust because she cares so much for Henry that she wants to help him however she can. In the long run, the biggest help she provides is by forcing him to grow up a little but before he heads out to the war. A scene in a local hospital in the veteran’s wing gives him a chance to face the real fears he should have that lie before him. This is where he runs into a soldier, wounded in war played by a quiet and sympathetic Michael Madsen. Both actors get a chance to be real people in this scene without overdoing it. Caddie also forces him to look at his friend Nicky with a more realistic eye and acknowledge that there are some pretty big holes there. In the end the holes get patched over because there is a real person in the Nic character, we mostly be the bravado and selfishness, but Mr, Nash manages to remind his son in a subtle way that Nic is a person, simple a flawed person.
Richard Benjamin was the director of this film. After years as a successful actor, he moved behind the camera and made several wonderful pictures, His first was “My Favorite Year” which will one day be a “Movie I Want Everyone To See” on the other blog, this was his second film. He manages to nail the look of the times the heartfelt honesty of the script and draw two good performances from the romantic leads. He could not quite contain Mr. Cage, but after all who has really managed to ever do that? I watched this on a burned DVD that I made from the Laser Disc of the movie that I still own. Most of you will not be familiar with Laser Discs and you will probably laugh when I tell you that the information was on both sides of the disc and on most early machines, you had to manually turn the disc over like a LP (another technology most of you will be ignorant of). Here is a little image to show how odd the experience is.“Racing with the Moon” is a nostalgia piece but it has some substance to it and it is extremely well made by loving craftsmen. It may seem old fashioned to most viewers today. Hell it seemed old fashioned to me when I first saw it the week that Van Halen had the number one hit with “Jump”. I’m an old fashioned kind of guy though. If your parents or grandparents were part of the “greatest Generation” , you should probably see this. It will remind you that everyone makes mistakes in love, no matter what the time period is.