The Shiite mob that stormed the United States Embassy in Iraq chanting “Death to America” the day before New Years Eve left me feeling no strong emotions one way or the other. It’s not going to change anything. While the Taliban and all of Shiite and Sunni militias in Iraq are strong enough to mount attacks on United States troops, they are not strong enough to expel the United States from Iraq or Afghanistan. While the United States is not strong enough to create a pro-Israel “democracy” in either country, it is strong enough to maintain bases in both countries for the foreseeable future. Those bases, near Iran and Russian, aren’t the means to a end. They are the end. Short of a militant anti-war movement in the United States capable, not only of mounting protests, but of disrupting American society — which at this point looks unlikely — the American ruling class is perfectly content with the current stalemate.
Pro-Iranian militias storming United States Embassies did, however, leave me feeling a bit nostalgic for my long lost youth. I’m a member of what I like to call the Boomer X Generation, people born between 1960 and 1968. We’re not Boomers. We’re not true Gen Xers. We’re somewhere in between. We have two foundational political memories, one conscious, one subconscious. The first you’ve probably guessed already. On November 4, 1979, a Shiite mob stormed the headquarters of the CIA in Tehran, otherwise known as the United States Embassy, holding 52 American “diplomats” hostage for 444 days, guaranteeing the election of Ronald Reagan, who opened up a back channel to the Iranian government in order to persuade them not to release the hostages until after his inauguration. The second is the bitter recession deliberately provoked by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who jacked up interest rates in order to discipline the American working class, which had grown increasingly militant and powerful in the 1970s. By 1982, when An Officer and a Gentleman was released, both the anti-Vietnam-War movement and the Labor movement had been decisively defeated. The age of neoliberalism had begun.
The most interesting thing about Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman isn’t the fine performance by Louis Gossett Jr., the tough Marine Corps drill sergeant who makes a man out of the loner and “rebel” Zach Mayo, played by the 33-year-old Richard Gere, a bit too old to be a naval flight school recruit, but still quite viral and handsome, or the ridiculously beautiful Deborah Winger, but the fact that the most puritanical, sex-negative movie you can possibly imagine was successfully marketed as a romance. Like the earlier Saturday Night Fever, which was sold as a fun movie about dancing, but which was in reality a dark film about rape culture among working class Italian men in 1970s Brooklyn, An Officer and a Gentleman effectively masks its true political agenda. Even though it features some local hoodlums spitting on clean cut Naval recruits and calling them “warmongers,” it’s primary message is not even about patriotism or militarism. On the contrary, An Officer and a Gentleman sidesteps both in favor of something much more subtle, the idea of the military, and by extension the military industrial complex, not only as a way to get out of the working class, but as the only way.
While Gere’s Zack Mayo repeatedly declaims that “I want to fly jets,” An Officer and a Gentleman is not, like Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, or Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, about the romance of being a pilot. There are in fact, in spite of the way it was filmed in and around Seattle, the home of Boeing, no planes at all in an Officer and a Gentleman. An establishing scene early in the film shot across the Puget Sound near the naval base at Bremerton shows, not an aircraft carrier or a Northrop T-38 Talon training jet, but a pair of Iowa class battleships. While Mayo owns a Triumph motorcycle, we never see him riding fast, or looking up at an aircraft flying overhead, or anything that would express a desire for speed and elevation. Just about the only time we hear any discussion at all about aviation is one brief scene in an aerodynamics class, and in the famous scene where Mayo and his fellow recruits are made to ride brutal crash simulator that teaches them how to recover in the event they have to ditch their planes over water.
What Zack Mayo really wants is a father. Brought up near the huge American naval base of Subic Bay in the Philippines by an abusive father, an enlisted man in the United States Navy, Zach is a casualty of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Brian Mayo, a sneering womanizer played by Robert Loggia, not only abandoned Zach’s mother, and let his son know he wasn’t wanted, but regularly brought home prostitutes. When the film opens, Zach is now a young adult, a recent college graduate, but his father has shown no signs of changing his ways. He’s still interested in only two things, getting drunk and banging whores. The elder Mayo has no interest in his son’s plans to join the Navy and become a naval aviator. In fact, he openly sneers at the idea. Brian Mayo may wear the uniform of a Chief Petty Officer, but he’s the 1960s counterculture personified, a cynical hedonist concerned only about himself. The American working class, the film is saying, is corrupt and amoral.
Zack Mayo finds his real father in Gunnery Sergeant Axel Foley, a tough as nails Marine Corps drill instructor with a heart of gold who is eventually revealed to everything Brian Mayo is not. “Where have you been all your lives,” he says when he first meets Zach and his fellow recruits, “at an orgy? Listening to Mick Jagger music and bad-mouthing your country.” Foley also warns Zach and his fellow recruits to stay away from “Puget Sound Debs,” as he derisively refers to the working class women from not yet gentrified Seattle metropolitan area. In Saturday Night Fever, young, working class Italian American men who are rapists and sexual predators. In An Officer and a Gentleman, young, working-class women are hard, cynical, and have a purely transactional view of romance, sex in exchange for a chance at getting into the middle-class. They’ll put out, not because they enjoy it, but for a chance at trapping a naval aviator into marriage.
While Zach Mayo is savvy and sophisticated, Sid Worley, his middle-class friend, played by a young David Keith, is trusting and naive. When they hook up with two local women, however, Mayo gets the virgin, Paula Pokrifki, played by Winger, and Worley gets the whore, Lynette Pomeroy, played by the late Lisa Blount. Both young women work at a local paper mill. Both want to escape. Paula is sophisticated and worldly wise — like Mayo she’s from a broken family — yet charming and innocent. Lynette is hard, vulgar, and like Mayo’s father, in spite of all the sex she seems to get, joyless and cynical. If Paula is attracted to Zach’s wit and intelligence, then Lynette picks Worley because she sees him as an easy mark. Both women actually have a right to be calculating and manipulative. Zach and Sid see them as being little more than easy fucks to be abandoned the day the finish their basic training and move onto flight school. Paul and especially Lynette may have a predatory view of sex and romance, but what other options do the two young women have? Paula’s father almost makes Zach’s father look like a fun guy in comparison. Lynette lives in a shack.
Zack Mayo and Sid Worley while more superficially “privileged” then Paula and Lynette — they’re both college graduates at least — also face a stark choice. Either they get through flight school and make it into a upwardly mobile elite with access to cutting edge technology, or they go back down into the overly sexed, drug and booze addled proletariat. Axel Foley knows it and plays it for all its worth. He’s the gate keeper to the meritocracy, to the only chance many young men in 1982 had for a meaningful career, and while he’s not a sadist who enjoys the power he has over his young recruits for its own sake, he is responsible for making sure that anybody who gets behind the controls of a state of the art jet fighter is willing to do what it takes to make himself valuable to the American empire, up to and including war crimes.
“I know why most of you are here. We weren’t born yesterday. Before you get to join United Airlines and sell them what we teach, you gotta give the Navy six years of your life! Lots of things can happen in six years, including another war. And if any of you are too peace-loving to dump napalm on an enemy village where there MIGHT be women and children, that’s what I’m here to discover…! I expect to lose at least half of you before I’m finished. I will use every means necessary, fair and unfair, to trip you up – that is, to expose your weaknesses… both as a potential aviator, and as a human being. The prize at the other end is a flight education worth $1 million! But first, you gotta get past ME.”
In other words, the film is telling us, the 1960s are over. When Paul Volcker slammed the breaks on the American economy in the late 1970s, it effectively killed the possibility that any American can just drop in and out of the middle-class at will. It’s 1982 and you’ve got one chance at upward mobility, and if you blow it, it’s a dead end job at the paper mill. If Zack Mayo makes it and Sid Worley doesn’t, it’s because Mayo knows the stakes and Worley does not. While Zack is presented, in typical 1980s fashion, as a “rebel,” he’s actually a calculating, upwardly mobile striver, keeping a supply of spare gear in a hidden space over his bunk that he’s willing to sell to his fellow trainees for a profit. Foley is determined to break Mayo down, not to erase him as an individual, but to teach him loyalty to the class he wants to enter. At times, Foley’s treatment of Zack Mayo feels a little bit like a fraternity hazing, but like a fraternity hazing, it has a purpose, to implant in Mayo’s brain the difference between an in group, his fellow naval aviators, including the lone woman, and an out group, the morally corrupt world of the Puget Sound Debs and their families. Important is the idea that outside of the in group, life is meaningless. “I’ve got nowhere else to go,” Mayo pleads, finally gaining Foley’s approval. “I got nothing else.”
Sid Worley, on the other hand, is destroyed precisely because he does in fact think he has somewhere else to go, because he doesn’t understand that outside of the United States military there is only economic and social death. While Sid is the son of a United States naval officer and the younger brother of another United States naval officer killed in Vietnam, he foolishly decides to give it all up for what he believes is true love. After Lynette lies and tells him she’s pregnant, he initially tells her he’ll pay for an abortion, but eventually decides to give up the opportunity to be a naval aviator and propose marriage. “I’ll get my old job at JC Penny,” he says. “It might be a little tough at first and we might have to live with my folks but we’ll make it. In a few years, I’ll be an assistant manager.” After he announces his plans, Lynette looks at him like he’s retarded. She doesn’t want to marry a man from the working class. She’s incapable of romance. She wants to be the wife of a high flying baby killer in the United States Navy, not some idiot flower child who wants to give it all up for love. To be honest, it’s hard to blame her. While she may only be 19 or 20 years old — Paula tells Zack that her mother is 39 — she already knows what Sid doesn’t. Being stuck in the working class means death. Sid has already committed suicide, even before he checks into a hotel and strings himself up with his belt.
Paula and Zack, by contrast, get to have it both ways. There is no conflict, the film is telling us, between true love and bombing villages with women and children. In the final, iconic scene, Zack strides into Paula’s factory dressed in his dress uniform, an angel in white who’s arrived to lift her out of the working class back “up where they belong.” Even Lynette approves. Her best friend has made it. “Way to go Paula,” she says, as all of their coworkers applaud. I suppose that after Zach did his 6 years in the Navy, which would have been a fairly easy six years since he would have been out before the first Gulf War, he was probably a bit too smart to end up as a pilot for United Airlines. After all, neoliberalism eventually proletarianized airline pilots as surely as Ronald Reagan proletarianized the air traffic controllers. I doubt Zack Mayo ended up pulling double shifts in a 737 for a middle class salary. Maybe he founded a software company and wound up as a multimillionaire or became a high price consultant on MSNBC telling us all about how Russia stole the election. Lynette, by contrast, is probably still working at the paper mill, if indeed she got lucky and it didn’t close down.
Now back to the US Embassy and your local Shiite mob.