by Adam Riske
Before we get carried away with the title and make Michael Vick jokes or surmise that Dogfight is about Top Gun pilots, let’s get the plot details out of the way: the movie takes place in 1963 San Francisco, on the night before 18-year old US Marine Eddie Birdlace (Phoenix) and his friends are shipped overseas to Vietnam. On their night on the town, they set up a game called a “dogfight,” in which each of them seeks out the ugliest woman to take to a party. The Marine with the ugliest girl wins cash. Eddie meets Rose (Taylor) in a coffee shop. Rose is shy and introverted; she's almost the opposite of Eddie, who is confident to the point of being abrasive. Eddie convinces Rose to be his date for the Dogfight. Rose is pretty dowdy and obsessed with the artists of 1960s folk message music – the things of easy mockery for the Marines. The first half hour is the ‘Dogfight,’ and what follows is what I like to call the ‘walking and talking’ movie (other examples are Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), where two characters get to know and like one another, share borrowed time and, most often, go their separate ways.
I hope I didn’t make Dogfight sound like homework. It’s not. It’s pretty short and moves at a steady pace. What keeps the movie from being maudlin is the dialogue and performances. Lily Taylor is impossible to dislike in this movie. Her character might be too much of a saint (if I give Dogfight any criticism, it's that), but people should be so lucky to see the world through her point of view. River Phoenix is incredible here. He’s so alive (no pun intended) in this character that it’s impossible to ignore him in any of his scenes. He seems to really get what makes this guy tick. Phoenix does a great job of balancing Eddie ‘the asshole’ and Eddie ‘the lost soul.’ The gradual dusting off of Eddie’s hidden decency is what makes the story so rewarding.
Dogfight is comprised of great scenes, including an extended date with Eddie and Rose going to dinner, dropping in on a café at which Rose wants to one day perform her folk music, and sharing a first kiss at an arcade. Eddie and Rose spend the night together (i.e. they make fuck, berserker) and the movie gets little details just right, like the way they put on music, the clumsiness with which they make the decision to sleep together and the push/pull of the morning after, when you know you have to leave but don’t want to. The last scene, though, my G-D! It is absolute perfection, and one of the best final shots in movie history. It involves a gesture that means more thematically than any line of dialogue.
So why do I feel like I saw this movie at the time I needed to see it? I saw Dogfight when I was soon graduating from college. I had put in four years of being in a fraternity, and the parallels of the “brotherhood” between the Marines and me and my fraternity “brothers” was eerie. I felt very much at the time like Eddie, a good kid lost in heaps of bullshit caused by peer groupthink. Men in their late teens and early 20s often fall into this trap, doing things they would never do on their own in order to feel like they belong to something. Most eventually grow out of it, but to see Eddie mature before our eyes is a relief. I love how Savoca doesn’t just condemn the Marines, either. They are about to go to Vietnam. They wouldn’t be happy; the gallows humor and the attitudes that makes up their personalities are appropriate. They’re scared and clinging to the bonds they developed in boot camp that will fortify them when in combat.