The Crushed Film Festival presents: Taps
The Movie: Taps
The Crush Object: Timothy Hutton
The Story: Brian Moreland (Hutton), a rising senior at Bunker Hill Military Academy, has just gotten a promotion to head cadet; he even got to sip brandy and shoot the war shit with his idol, headmaster General Bache (George C. Scott). Moreland's high won't last long, though — the board of trustees is shutting Bunker Hill down and selling the property to one of the go-to villains of the '80s, a condo developer. On top of that, during a scuffle with some townies the night of the spring cotillion, Bache ends up accidentally killing one of them, then has a heart attack while in police custody. Moreland et al. decide to occupy and defend the school, and unsurprisingly, the situation spirals out of control…towards the ultimate defeat. You heard me.
It's hard to believe Taps is 30 years old; I hadn't seen it in at least 20, and I remembered it as yawing between expository tedium and cringey earnestness. It's got a decent supply of both, but it's also much better done than I'd given it credit for.
Granted, much of it just doesn't make sense. The accidental shooting is McGuffinry at its most absurd (leaving aside entirely the fact that, as Roger Ebert pointed out, Bache is somehow the only adult on campus). Why does Bache have a gun at a dance at all, never mind one he says he thought wasn't loaded? Why is there the equivalent of a school picture of himself on Bache's desk? How does a K-12 academy have an armory stacked floor-to-ceiling with live ammo? Shouldn't the lead-cadet position go to a young man with a waist larger than 21 inches? (Hutton's silhouette here is that of a stalk of Queen Anne's lace.)
And yet, the movie stays up on an interesting tightrope; although it's "for" teenagers, it takes the side of the film's adults while still maintaining compassion for the misguided cadets and their high-minded foolishness. Moreland and company's fierce loyalty to Bache is perfect in its shrill pathos, because you've already started to sense that Bache is the armed-forces equivalent of a college infirmary doctor — a sense confirmed by Master Sergeant Moreland Senior (Wayne Tippit, a.k.a. Amanda Woodward's dad) in his lone, excellent scene, in which he girl-pleases at his son, "Oh, sweet Jesus — 'a code of honor'?" Bache is precisely the Mr. Racine type adolescents typically become ensorcelled by, believing that their fight is important and courageous when it's really just melodrama. The script does a great job making a teenage audience feel like the adults in the story Just Don't Get It, while at the same time making adults feel like the kids Just Don't Get It either.
For all that, the story's something of an abstraction, a parable, but under the circumstances, the dialogue is decent and the acting very good. Various fetuses in the cast include Sean Penn in his first big role; Tom Cruise as a psycho-hardcore cadet captain who lifts weights while listening to the Pointer Sisters; Giancarlo Esposito, calling the cadence; and that kid who played Cousin Dale in National Lampoon's Vacation. Evidently, the cast spent six weeks living at a military academy and getting the knack…except Cruise, who decided he didn't care for that shit, and decamped to a hotel. So, naturally it's his character who touches off the final firefight and gets himself and Moreland killed. He's a little screechy in it, but Hutton is very good, not coasting all blinky Adam's apple as he sometimes does; Penn is excellent; Ronny Cox as Col. Kerby has to deliver every line all "could you stop being 17 for five minutes and hear reason," and he's great too.
A couple of great shots close out the action — the choppers dropping in with the smoke bombs; and Dwyer carrying Moreland's body into a literal fog of war at the front gate.
The Backstory: Before my crush on Hutton finally spent itself, I'd trundled home with, or taped off HBO, everything he appeared in up through 1986 or '87. It's also a movie from that era that girls in the demographic tended to watch several times a year, because, like The Outsiders, it had something for everyone (whereas The Iceman had nothing for anyone).
The Embarrassment Level: I'd expected to have to peer around a big old eight to see the screen on this one; happily, though it's a bit odd, it isn't horrible. I'm embarrassed for George C. Scott, but that doesn't count. Two.
Tags: George C. Scott Giancarlo Esposito movies Ronny Cox Sean Penn simmer down freshman The Crushed Film Festival the Pointer Sisters Timothy Hutton Tom Cruise Wayne Tippit