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Bold movie that states the price of glory.
on February 9, 2005
An overlooked, gripping drama that is notable for its young rising stars (Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, Tom Cruise) and also its prescience, as noted by another commentator here, although I think that none of the Amazon reviewers to date has hit the nail on the head with "Taps" and its overarching theme.
The movie begins fairly conventionally, with the teenage military cadets and their venerable institution shown to the viewer to be upright, virtuous, and full of sound moral values. The youths may be a bit immature at times, and callow, but their earnestness and sincerity are shown as admirable and their devotion to their gruff, benevolent commandant (George C. Scott, perfectly cast) is unquestioned. You can literally hear the Sousa marches playing in the background. But just when you think you're in for a predictable, one-sided, nattily uniformed prep school movie preaching the military virtues, the plot takes a darker twist and we learn that appearances can be very deceiving. Faced with the closing of the school, the boys turn renegade, immediately betraying their duty of obedience in the emotions of the moment. While determined, brave, and motivated by principle, they are at the same time defying legal authority and behaving unwisely. Recognition of this causes the relationships and trust among the cadets to splinter tragically. Through the words of Hutton's career soldier father -- a wonderful supporting performance, with the hard, practical professional tearing down the cadets' naivete -- we are presented a picture of Scott's commandant that does not fit the boys' hero-worshipful image. And then the national guardsman who arrives to end the armed takeover of the school acts as Hutton's conscience, pointing out to him how far from the path of honor he has truly strayed.
Hutton's friends -- the pragmatic Penn, who wants to end the conflict peacefully, and the belligerent Cruise, who lusts for a bloody showdown -- tug him in two directions and he manages to antagonize both of them, furthering his sense of isolation and failure. Finally, the accidental but predictable death of an extremely young cadet -- no more than a boy -- is lain at Hutton's feet, and is more than he can bear. There is no glory or purpose in this death -- "You just think about what a great little kid he was, and how much you're gonna miss him," Hutton is forced to acknowledge, in the movie's big statement: that high-flown rhetoric about dying for honor and country isn't enough. "There must have been something more that we weren't taught," he tearfully reflects. Subtly,"Taps" has moved away from preaching the sanitary hagiography of "Dulce et decorum est / pro Patria mori" to address a greater truth -- that without wisdom, military virtues and sacrifices are just so much posturing and lead only to waste and misery. It was a brave statement to make back when this film was made and an even more important concern in 2005. The final shots -- a grieving Penn and the surviving cadets slowly fading into the mist, then an abrupt cut to a reprise of the triumphant military review sequence from earlier in the movie (is this supposed to be a vision of Hutton's entrance into Valhalla?) -- starkly hammer this point home.
A fine, thoughtful movie that is sympathetic to all its characters but also does not shy away from condemning their blindness. As an ROTC alumni myself (at one stage of my life I would have loved to attend a school like this, and part of me still would), I salute it.