Robert Altman barged into the nation's consciousness during the Vietnam War era with the anti-war comedy "M*A*S*H" (1970), guiding a huge ensemble — with fresh stars like Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould — through freewheeling improvisations.
The movie was set during the Korean War, but '70s audiences knew it was commenting on the bloody chaos of Vietnam. Seen today, in a new 35mm print at the AFI Silver Theatre, it remains uproarious and profound about the way human beings develop a tough humor and forge unexpected bonds to stay sane amid the human wreckage of combat.
Altman brought to the subject matter all the confidence of a man who had joined the Army Air Forces and piloted B-24 bombers in World War II. He celebrated the competence of the crack doctors in the film's Mobile Army Surgical Hospital while pillorying the sanctimony or officiousness of the people who tried to hem them in. His own offhand virtuosity — and his uncanny feeling for the tumult of life — mirrored what he admired about his heroes. Altman captured each ad-lib or pratfall with multilayered sound and a roving camera. And he obliterated taboos against waxing irreverent over military service while depicting war in all its bloody mess.
To the great good fortune of the audience, the AFI Silver has brought the movie back while Mitchell Zuckoff's "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography," is still available in bookstores. Even those who mistrust the oral-biography form should appreciate Zuckoff's judicious, kaleidoscopic testimony to Altman's untamed genius.
"Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau, who worked with Altman on the political satire "Tanner '88," told Zuckoff about the epiphanies many young moviegoers had watching "M*A*S*H.": "The cacophony of American culture at that time was being brilliantly reproduced on a screen. … Even if you didn't listen to the individual through lines, the individual melodies, there was a beauty to the jazz of those voices coming in and out." And, "The idea that black humor is a kind of last resort, and it's a way to keep the madness at bay and to survive."
"M*A*S*H" runs Friday-Monday at the AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring. Call 301-495-6720 or go to afi.com/silver.