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Basic Training

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 10, 2015

Another milestone from Frederick Wiseman—what a run of movies he made, from 1967 to 1971!—released at a powerfully pivotal juncture of time, encouraging & even demanding that we reconsider our assumptions about the American Armed Forces;

Straight to it: there may be jerks and abusers in the military (“wipe that smile off yer face or I’ll knock yer ___ teeth in!”), but they’re not only, & sometimes not even: the commanders often carry themselves w’ real decorum & dignity, & also express palpable caring; this first drill sergeant seems to be merely going through the motions of shouting, suggesting as he does so that such Lee Ermey-associated treatment is in part a convention, & maybe even a necessary way to unseat the deep inertia of this demographic; as for the young troops, they mostly seem to be a bunch of unformed, inarticulate individuals who are struggling & quite probably doing the best that they can manage to do;

As with Wiseman’s other institutional films, the revolutions that are now all we ever hear about the 60s/70s are present, but more in the background (“you may not believe in this war, but you’re here”, “this ain’t my country!”); this means, I suppose, that people never really know what’s coming, and that people’s pat pictures of what’s already been just aren’t sufficient to life’s real complexity, ambiguity & multiplicity;

Basic Training is not the wall to wall revelation that High School is—wait’ll you see Wiseman’s Hospital!—but it is still full of marvelous things: that heroically geeky young recruit who marches out of step for the entire drill sequence, while his disbelieving superior can only stand & yell at him, over and over and over, the not quite ridiculous older woman who seems to be smugly surveying her son’s promotion, & then so ardently expresses her pride in his accomplishment; this same promoted individual who’s wife keeps trying to touch him, until the camera tilts down at the devastatingly right moment when he just yanks his hand away; these fragments add up, or multiply together …

We often rely on impressions, platitudes & superficialities to make important judgments about times & places, issues & individuals; Wiseman, his films, the innumerable best of the entire documentary idiom give us data instead, & an epistemological mandate, & the means to actually judge wisely & then make a real difference in the world!