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Zachary “Zack” Mayo (Richard Gere) enlists in the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School, though he isn’t exactly cut out for the role, lacking real integrity and honor due to his seamy upbringing under an alcoholic father. His new drill instructor, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley (Louis Gossett, Jr.) recognizes right away that “Mayo-naisse” might have what it takes but needs to be pushed, and so spends the next 13 weeks insulting, shaming, and verbally and physically abusing him to get the man to quit or change. It’s brutal mentorship, but Foley knows what must be done.
Directed by Taylor Hackford, An Officer and a Gentleman follows the genre formula pretty closely but also creates a few of their own, especially concerning Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger), a local factory worker who dreams of a life beyond the trappings of her industrial hometown. It’s her role that gives the story most of its heart, as she is not merely the love interest. She sees right through him. So much so that when the time comes and we see Zach carrying Paula in his arms away from the factory, we might wonder just who exactly is saving who?
By the mid-point in the story, Zach has yet to really fit into the regiment and worse, has pushed all the wrong buttons with Foley. At one point, the Drill Instructor actually caught Mayo in a scheme where he was selling pre-shined belt buckles and shoes for cash. It doesn’t go over well. The punishment is swift and harsh. Zach must spend the entire weekend under duress as Foley puts him through a soul-breaking routine of drill exercises that include incessant berating and demands to get his “DOR”, a Drop on Request that would mean the cadet gives up and goes home. As painful and demanding as it all is, Zach refuses to give up and continues to push himself to limits neither man knew he possessed.
As the stress almost breaks Zach, the sergeant straight up demands the cadet give him his DOR, shouting at him to comply, eventually stating he will do it himself and kick Mayo out. This is finally the breaking point for Zach, who confesses to his real plight, that he has no where else to go. When Zach realizes he can’t satisfy the drill sergeant, no matter how persistent in his conviction, it wrecks him and for the first time we see the cadet weep for all that has come before him and the hope he now feels is lost forever.
It’s about character. So says Foley, who presses the cadet to explain why he’s joined the notoriously difficult Flight School. It has nothing to do with flying jets. Zach tells him he’s changed, but that’s not what Foley wants to hear. He wants the truth, the get at the real pain buried at the core of the cadet, the one that he masks behind his rebellious attitude. When he believes he can’t get it out of Zach, he threatens to pull him from the program and this is where the crucial turning point occurs. Zach realizes it’s over. Foley isn’t some fool who can be manipulated by his charms and schemes. But more so, the fear of being on his own with literally nothing to his name and no place to go shakes him. Foley has forced him to face a hard truth about who he is and why he’s here.
The thing about Zach is that he’s a loner. It’s a trait he’s learned from his father and it’s the only way he’s gotten by to now. In a military school where everything works as a unit, there is no room for the individual. Zack’s recklessly selfish behavior has only damaged the team, and yet it isn’t until this moment, on his back while struggling keep his feet a few inches above the ground in punishment, does he realize just how badly. He’s got nowhere else to go. The words pour out of his mouth like acid and his whole body collapses as the weight of that understanding bears down. It’s a powerful moment that had profound effect of the young soldier in the days and weeks that follow. It changes him entirely.
An Officer and a Gentleman is a great film that seems to be about one thing but is actually about another. It breaks from convention in romantic films, redefining love in many ways, while also building a compelling and authentic story between a cadet and his sergeant. Knowing our limits is important, but understanding who we are is equally so.
Douglas Day Stewart
Richard Gere, Debra Winger, David Keith, Louis Gossett Jr.