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Basic Training

     Cambridge, Massachusetts filmmaker Frederick Wiseman shot Basic Training (1971) thirty years ago, the summer of 1970, as he followed a company of draftees at Fort Knox, Kentucky, through their eight weeks of army training, from climbing off the bus and getting their first crewcuts to graduation day: armed and ready for duty in Vietnam. Stanley Kubrick seemed to get some of his Full Metal Jacket drill sergeantry from Wiseman's film. However, the two works couldn't be more different: Kubrick's strident, anti-military expressionism versus Wiseman's subtle, fly-on-the-wall realism. And Wiseman, a non-PC left-leaner in his 35-year career, dares to show the military brass here as mostly OK, surprisingly concerned for the well-being of the callow grunts put before them, and shockingly neutral about fighting Nixon's war.

     Besides the beautiful black-and-white 16mm photography (even now, Wiseman has never worked in video or, as his own editor, used an Avid), Wiseman can be counted on for some mordant humor:a sad-sack private being trained in latrine duty, another goofy one coming on like Jerry Lewis or Lou Costello in mucking up his marching steps. And in practically every Wiseman movie ever, whether his real-life characters are welfare workers, policemen, or high school teachers, there are scenes in which those in power deliver condescending lectures in living to the beleagured souls who must stand there sullenly and take it. Here, of course, it's commissioned officers, mostly white, giving gung-ho sermons to recruits in trouble, mostly African-American.

(March, 2000)


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