1991, R, 89 min. Directed by Nancy Savoca. Starring River Phoenix, Lili Taylor, Holly Near.
REVIEWED By Louis Black, Fri., March 27, 1992
We really wanted to recommend this movie when it opened in Austin this fall, problem was it only lasted a week so there was no place to see it. Having determined to dump it, the film company offered no support and it quickly disappeared everywhere. Finally, the Dobie has managed to bring back Dogfight, Nancy Savoca's second feature, which like True Love, her first, is a captivating original, an intensely human film, succeeding because of characters rather than story. In 1963, a group of marines, ready to ship out and eventually end up in Vietnam, stage a dogfight in San Francisco, the idea being for each marine to try and find the ugliest girl he can, the winner walking away with a cash prize. River Phoenix finds the homely waitress Lili Taylor and takes her to the party. She figures out what is going on, there is a confrontation, she leaves but he woos her back and spends the night with her. There are few surprises in this tale, no really unexpected plot twists, but we get to know the two of them as people in the remarkably romantic context of the early Sixties (and maybe that's just personal nostalgia). Phoenix's distant, confused 19-year-old, ready to conquer and kill for country, isn't sure what to make of Taylor's remarkable waitress, who's discovered the emerging folksinger/protest movement. It's not just the contrast between the two, but that as a consequence of this night, they come to anchor each other's life, more unintentionally than not and we know this more than we're shown it. Dogfight is as much about what is implied as what's there. Ironically, the overblown For the Boys was playing next door where I first saw this. Midler's anti-war vehicle failed, despite some extraordinary performances. There were big stagey war numbers, but each was a predictable ideological take (WWII as heroic and bloodless, Korea as the beginning of moral confusion, Vietnam as hell), the film is so big and tries to be about so much that it's finally only about itself. By trying to be about so little, telling a simple fragile romantic story, Dogfight is about so much -- war and peace, love and romance, sex roles and cultural myths. What it understands is that to be really anti-war, rather than glitzy moralizing, a film should just be full of life, its characters so richly nuanced and detailed that they resonate with energy. The power here is in the performances, these people are so many people hidden inside, not just the people they are but those they are to become. The last shot is a swooning moment of tenderness, telling in the embrace of two people not just the tragedy of war but the histories of desire and the grace-imparting power of the human touch.