Was there ever a less overtly romantic film that An Officer and a Gentleman? Sure, it’s a ladies choice due to the presence of Richard Gere, but this ain’t no Pretty Woman rom-com. Rom-coms don’t feature abrupt suicides, or man to man kickboxing confrontations. They don’t get knee-deep in the mud of basic training, with the emphasis on physical punishment and assault courses. They don’t feature a hero who calls his best friend’s girlfriend a ****, or a protagonist who wrestles with a negative view of women caused by growing up in a house of prostitution. All in all, Taylor Hackford’s film isn’t the gossamer confection that lots of soft-soap movies end up as; it’s like the hard-ass, unsentimental movie Top Gun was in the original script.
And that’s all for the better, because by breaking all the rules, An Officer and a Gentleman becomes a genre classic. Zack Mayo (Gere) is introduced staring at some bodies on a bed, intent on the wreckage of his father’s latest threesome. Mayo announces he’s going to join the navy to fly jets, jumps onto his motorcycle and heads off to the nearest base, where his cocky attitude attracts the attention of tough Gunnery sergeant Emil Foley, played in an Oscar-winning, super-abrasive turn by Louis Gossett Jr. The recruits have been warned off consorting with the local ladies, characterised by a desire to get pregnant deliberately to ensnare a husband, but Mayo and buddy Sid Worley (David Keith) find themselves seduced by Lynette (Lisa Blount) and Paula Pokrifi (Debra Winger). The latter strikes sparks with Mayo, but for a young couple in this volatile environment, there are mountains in their way, but they climb a step, every day….
An Officer and a Gentleman is a film that lifts the audience up where they belong; a hard-earned story of self-actualisation where the female characters are smart and have agency, and the male characters learn the error of their ways. Mayo is quite a character; his scam to sell freshly polished buckles and boots to recruits is very untypical of Hollywood heroes, and his punkish attitude takes a long time to settle. His direct conflict with Foley makes up a large part of the narrative; Foley seeks to reduce Mayo to nothing, then rebuild him. ‘I got nowhere else to go’ Mayo screams after Foley physically and mentally trashes him. But Mayo’s redemption is very much via his relationship with the resourceful Paula Pokrifi, who gets both him and his situation, and is prepared to hang tough and be patient to get the relationship she dreams of; the final scene, as Zack rewards Paula by carrying her out of her factory, surrounded by her cheering co-workers, is the kind of natural, iconic moment that few films can muster.
Not Top Gun, not Pretty Woman, nor anything other than a striking recruiting poster with three-dimensional characters, An Officer and a Gentleman is a rare film that speaks to men, women and couples in equal measures. The central couple turns their back on each other at times, but never lose sight of the big prize of love. That the tragic Sid is Mayo’s reflection, full of bluster about love and duty, reveals exactly what our hero fights for; An Officer and A Gentleman is as motivational a proposition as Rocky, but also has a developed, caustic world-view that makes it a salutatory lesson for the ages.