Despite its sincere intentions and strong political background, Burning Blue lacks originality and has a hard time maintaining a credible plot line. The 2013 indie film attempts to accurately document the cruel code of conduct regarding homosexual men in the military, but ends up conveying only a caricatural depiction of this far-reaching social issue. The movie is seemingly based on raw, solid facts concerning President Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. However, the harrowing reality of the 1990s witch-hunt for gay naval aviators is mostly overshadowed by the film’s overly-didactic approach.
Prior to September 2011, when President Barrack Obama requested the repeal of Clinton’s policy, gay men who were enrolled in the military had to keep their sexual orientation hidden in order to avoid animosity and discharge. This imposed code deeply affected the lives and careers of over 14,000 LGBT individuals who rejected traditional dogma and refused to adhere to ungrounded social conduct. Set in 1992, Burning Blue tells the story of two such servicemen, Matthew Blackwood (Rob Mayes) and Daniel Lynch (Trent Ford), who are stigmatized and face daunting consequences when their romantic relationship is revealed.
Daniel Lynch and William Stephensen (Morgan Spector) are two U.S. Navy aircraft pilots who become involved in a series of accidents, where aviators keep dying on flight maneuvers. The first scene of the movie reveals to the viewer that William is the one who is behind some of these incidents – he has issues with his vision but refuses to come forward because it would halt his aspirations to go into the space program. The officers are looking for a gay man as their scapegoat, William is in fact straight and his homosexual co-pilot Daniel takes the blame in order to protect him. The relationship between the two men is central to the film’s storyline and often eclipses Daniel and Matthew’s romantic affair, whereas the latter is mostly ambiguous. Both Matthew and Daniel have devoted women in their lives, which only makes it harder for the two servicemen to be open about their love for each other. The men are also competing for a spot on the Pilot School and want to become renowned Navy chopper pilots. On a weekend leave to New York City, they visit a gay club in the city and sleep together. Things take a turn for the worse when rumors about the two arise and a compromising photo of William and his squadron surfaces. The men in the picture, including Daniel and Matthew, are depicted naked, drunk and in rather suggestive positions, prompting the NCIS investigator to presume that the ostensibly unrelated accidents are in fact casualties of a subversive “gay cult”.
Although the movie’s director and co-writer, D.M.W. Greer, has honorable intentions and an earnest approach, Burning Blue is drawn back by its rather conservative tone. Despite its controversial topic, the film is very cautious and reserved when it comes to portraying homosexual men and their relationships. The gay club scene is rather tame and the scenes with Daniel and Matthew seem overdrawn and at times too distant and abstract both sexually and romantically, making it hard for the viewer to relate. This lack of chemistry has more to do with the modest script than with the acting – the two characters barely have any physical interaction throughout the movie. Aside from a kiss and a timid sex scene that also involves a woman, their relationship is tacit.
The film’s purported villains – the NCIS investigators – are overblown and unrealistic at best, while the interrogation scenes are drawn-out and lack any real suspense. Burning Blue also pushes for a forced reconciliation with these “villains” and other bigoted individuals. After harassing and maltreating Daniel throughout the entire film, Special Agent Jones’ (Chris Chalk) final confession is a failed attempt at turning a patently one-dimensional character into more of a complex figure. This is also the case for Daniel’s homophobic friend, William, with whom the main character tries to make peace. The movie also has a hard time preserving its originality – as both the characters and the plot noticeably resemble those in Brokeback Mountain and Top Gun.
In spite of its failings, Burning Blue is noble and sincere at its heart, attempting to bring awareness to the unjustified and relentless persecution that went on in the military during the 1990s. Although the film may be lacking at times in discourse and verisimilitude, there is a certain candid, heartfelt warmth to it that atones for its shortcomings. Altogether, Greer’s endeavor is genuine and compassionate and certainly deserves credit for disclosing the corrosive, intolerant environment in which military LGBT individuals had to serve their country 30 years ago.