Before Glenn Close portrayed characters who boiled bunnies and murdered young stud screenwriters, she gained fame for playing noble, principled women. The actress returns to that sort of role in “Serving in Silence” as a lesbian military officer who battles the Army’s effort to discharge her. It’s the kind of issue-oriented TV movie that wins awards and rankles the righteous right, and yet the film is so safe, so staid, it will struggle just to keep viewers watching for two hours.
Strong lead perfs and a gutsy, unapologetic attitude about its subject matter notwithstanding, “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story” lacks a crucial dose of passion.
Undoubtedly part of the problem is its venue. While the telefilm makes much of the military’s severe attitude opposing gays in the service, primetime network TV isn’t far behind in its discomfort with homosexuality. Indeed, it took the star power of Close and Judy Davis — and the producing muscle of Close and no less a figure than Barbra Streisand — just to get this vidpic made. Apparently someone also thinks it takes that star power to get people to watch, since promos on NBC leave the distinct impression that Streisand appears in the telefilm.
It’s illuminating, in fact, that so much media attention has been given to the moment when Close finally kisses Davis, who plays Cammermeyer’s quasi-bohemian yet closeted partner. This comes late in the film, when the supposedly impressionable kids should be fast asleep, as will many adults, lulled by the film’s pokey pace.
When the vidpic begins in 1988, Col. Cammermeyer, a much-decorated career military officer whowon a Bronze Star for her service as a nurse in Vietnam, has moved to Seattle, where she’s head nurse at a veterans’ hospital and a high-ranking officer in the National Guard.
She’s also the divorced mother of four adolescent-to-young adult sons, who live with their father in town. For all her competence and professionalism, a certain tension is noticeable in her relations with her sons, and she conveys an unidentified — to her, anyway — longing.
That itch gets scratched when she meets Diane, a painter who lives in L.A. Close does a fine job of showing the subtle awakening of this committed, loyal officer who finally allows herself to accept her lesbianism and to fall in love with the complicated Diane.
But the domestic bliss, alas — and inevitably — doesn’t last. Cammermeyer’s newfound insight doesn’t alter her career ambitions: She wants to be chief nurse of the National Guard and to retire with general’s stars on her epaulets.
That means getting top-level security clearance. A straight-shooting officer who doesn’t believe in hiding the truth, the colonel admits to a Defense Investigative Service officer that she’s a lesbian, insisting there’s nothing immoral about it.
You know what happens next. Not only does Cammermeyer not get her promotion, but the Army immediately begins an effort to get rid of her. This isn’t just the time before “Don’t ask, don’t tell”; it’s the era of “Don’t be.”
Viewers who have patiently waded through this exposition must now expect sparks to fly, issues to be debated, decisions to be questioned, relationships tested — in short, some dramatic conflict.
No such luck. The film never builds up a head of steam, never really evokes an emotion.
Just when it looks like her sons will express some ambivalence about their mother’s life choice, they instead offer unconditional support, with scene after scene marked by loving mom hugging one after another of her sons in a none-too-subtle display of perfect family understanding. Her cold-as-a-glacier, disapproving Norwegian father (Jan Rubes) soon comes around, too.
Cammermeyer’s colleagues express almost universal support as well. Even the military prosecutor at her expulsion hearing swears he deeply admires her and is only doing his duty.
Its potentially incendiary subject matter aside, this story couldn’t be more benign if it was featured on “Barney & Friends.”
What saves this film is the acting in the two lead roles. Close is, in equal measure, military steel and romantic mush, and she finds the humanity in her Nordic soldier, despite writer Alison Cross and director Jeff Bleckner’s efforts to beatify Cammermeyer.
Davis is just as impressive in a role that’s in many ways more challenging. Her Diane is more confident in her sexuality, yet even more guarded in hiding it. The scene when the two women reconcile after a brief misunderstanding and the two lovers talk of growing old together is tender and touching.
Others — including the always impressive Wendy Makkena, who has played everything from a naive nun in “Sister Act” to a grieving cop on “NYPD Blue”– go largely underutilized.
Tech credits are suitably classy, given the high-powered production muscle behind this project.
Considering TV’s reluctance to deal with the subject of homosexuality — think of the brouhaha surrounding the Roseanne/Mariel Hemingway kiss on the former’s sitcom — perhaps it’s churlish to condemn “Serving in Silence” for being too timid. Just getting this film made is worthy of commendation. But that can’t take away from a core disappointment that its stellar cast and provocative subject get lost in a punches-pulled production.