Subtlety is apparently not in writer/director DMW Greer’s repertoire if his debut feature, Burning Blue, is any indication. This is a well-intentioned drama about the development of and eventual ramifications of a relationship between two men in the American Navy before the removal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell from the government law books that only fleetingly reaches the dramatic heights that its material is clearly striving for. Viewing now in the clear light of a post-DADT world and the grand-standing dialogue of Greer and co-writer Helene Kvale come off as weightless, drooping under the clichés and perceived inherent power of its story that is neither particularly romantic nor tragic beyond the very basic definitions of those words.
Yes, the situation that the two men – Trent Ford as Daniel, and Rob Mayes as Matthew – find themselves in, inspired as it were by a true story, was terrible and dehumanizing, but the material is given little in the way of shade and texture. It’s all fairly one note, only occasionally rising above the rather dry screenplay thanks to some impressive scale in its military sequences, as well as some nicely acted scenes involving the two men as they assess their own feelings while being very keenly aware of the consequences both professionally and personally. Secondary plots involving Daniel’s flying partner (Morgan Spector) and the betrayal he feels, as well as a girlfriend character who is dismissed from the plot faster than she is introduced feel, well, secondary but also take away impact from the central story. Likewise, the military investigation that takes over the second half of the narrative feels mishandled.
Funnily enough, one of Burning Blue’s most troubling aspects is in the casting. The male stars are all very handsome beings, but in casting a film without a single person of colour (at least for the first hour, and only then the lone black castmember is a homophobe) where the men all dress identical and all have names like Daniel, Matthew, Will and John it becomes almost impossible to distinguish who is who in the early stretches. When they mention the name of somebody who has died in a training exercise and the only real way of determining who it was was by seeing who shows up at the funeral and who does not. That’s how seemingly interchangeable these men are. The women, too, are all fairly identical with only the impressive features of Tammy Blanchard standing out amongst them, but for a while it is difficult to figure out what name goes with what face, and just what is happening to who. Rob Mayes, with his fuller frame, stands out the most.
While the story of Greer’s film is an important one, Burning Blue is perhaps a film that ought to have been made ten years (or more) ago. In fact it sort of already was in the 1995 TV movie Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story starring Glenn Close as a officer who is discharged after admitting her homosexuality, which won Glenn Close and Judy Davis Emmy Awards. Title cards that end the film mention Obama’s eradication of the primitive policies that kept LGBT citizens from performing their patriotic duties without fear of persecution and malice, and it is a sentiment that tugs are the heart. Sadly, the 100 minutes before it just aren’t strong enough to work as anything more than a minor telling of an important moment of gay history. Consider the recent HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart and think of how these historic gay stories can still resonate and impart on audiences a sense of pride and anger in equal measure. Burning Blue has a nice love affair at its centre, but Greer’s efforts at aiming for something more are undercut by the unremarkable way his film goes about them. C