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Two Attempts At Social Comment Hit The Mark

August 23, 1987|SHEILA BENSON

Having recently wished in print for a few neatly scaled American movies with some sense of social comment, in much the same vein as "Wish You Were Here" or "Rita, Sue and Bob, Too!" or "Withnail and I," we suddenly have two. "No Way Out" has a seamy backstage sense of Washington today among its plot convolutions, and "Dirty Dancing" is a look at the still-optimistic early '60s and may be the decade's most arousing movie-with-dancing but is something more besides.

"No Way Out" director Roger Donaldson presumably had a larger budget to work with than any of the other four film makers, yet it isn't production values but a preciseness of observation and dialogue that carries us up to and through its astonishing endings. (Carries some of us, I should say; it's about "endings" that reviewers seem to turn rabidly to one side or another.)

The tone and pace of his opening scenes signal offhandedly that we're seeing the real thing. We meet Kevin Costner's lieutenant commander, in Navy dress uniform with slabs of medals, at an inaugural-night celebration, which is his first run-in with Sean Young (America's one good chance to fill the Kay Kendall void). Breathtakingly lovely, her position as a behind-the-scenes, or between-the-sheets, Washington insider has given her a slightly sardonic view of such grandiose functions as inaugural balls: As the Secret Service frisks her electronically at the doorway, she drawls: "Good thing it isn't a bull-bleep detector or no one would get in."

Minutes later, after the furor of a presidential visit complete with "Hail to the Chief," the emcee is waxing unctuous about the next four years. Onstage with him, a pair of black entertainers begin to writhe in hokey Las Vegas style, a performance with all the sincerity of Sammy Davis Jr. on late-night TV. "We have a potential nausea situation building up," Young deadpans, and the two escape to explore the enormous attraction each has felt from the first instant.

Those two scenes are honeycombed with incident and crosscurrents: We've seen the intelligence and swift irascibility of Gene Hackman's secretary of Defense and the puppy-loyal watchdog quality of his aide, played by Will Patton (alas, overplayed--the only evidence of that in the film). And between the adeptness of writer Robert Garland, who adapted this radically from Kenneth Fearing's 1940s novel, "The Big Clock," and Donaldson's savvy, sinewy direction, we've had a sense of being around the real Washington, one of palship and deals and connections and vendettas that's been ours for the seeing all through the Iran- contra hearings.

A vital plot point turns on plans for a "phantom submarine," pet project of the senator played by Howard Duff, and the target of Hackman's Defense secretary, who considers it one of the Hill's major boondoggles. The sub is supposedly undetectable by Soviet sonar; Hackman snorts derisively that since it's the size of several large office buildings, they wouldn't need sonar--it would make a vast lump in the ocean. (When the movie was first written, back in 1975, the scene was a reference to Robert MacNamara and the B-70 bomber; although its release just as Irangate subsides makes "No Way Out" seem eerily prescient, the film has been a long time aborning.)

Another sequence takes place at an embassy reception, where guests in dinner dress seem unstartled to be entertained in a paneled drawing room by Maori dancers in body paint, making fearsome, tongue-waggling grimaces. The guests' unblinking aplomb at this moment of cultural crossed wires--in which, you suspect, Washington abounds--is terribly funny and slyly acute.

The point about all this swiftly sketched detail is that we need it to go along with the later stretches of the plot, but it has been so well placed, and documented with such a feeling of veracity that we're in the mood to go willingly wherever the script wants us.

"Dirty Dancing" does just the same thing. Set in 1963, only months before J.F.K.'s assassination, in the summer of the "I Have a Dream" speech, its screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, has called this period "the last summer of liberalism." It coincides with the last summer of innocence--of every kind--of the film's narrator, Frances Houseman, at 17 still answering to "Baby," a peculiarity she says "it didn't occur to me to mind." (She's played superbly by Jennifer Grey, daughter of Joel Grey and granddaughter of Mickey Katz, who might come to her role with a little extra understanding of this milieu than most actresses.)

On the surface and here at a Grossinger's-like Catskills resort, it was a halcyon time, perhaps--to paraphrase Tennessee Williams--our country's last summer of ascendancy. The pinpoint clarity with which Bergstein and director Emile Ardolino re-create that time and those idealistic young people, lets us feel "that must be exactly how it was."

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