Richard Gere plays a street tough Navy brat (Zack Mayo) whose mother committed suicide when he was thirteen, and whose alcoholic sailor father raised him above a whorehouse in the Philippines.
Zack has been on his own most of his life, and he has the tattoos to prove it, along with the scars, both visible and internal.
The only chance he has left is to make it through Naval officers training school in Seattle.
If he isn’t ridiculed or beaten to death by the meanest drill sergeant you could hope to meet (an Oscar-winning performance by Louis Gossett, Jr), or distracted by the social-climbing, desperate local girls from the paper mill, Mayo (or Mayonnaise, as he comes to be known by his thirty-four classmates) he just might become a jet pilot.
During the thirteen weeks of hell that follow, some of the officer candidates are weeded out through physical and mental breakdowns, but Mayo has the intelligence, the discipline, and the muscle to take whatever the Navy dishes out.
Coming to grips with his own inner turmoil is a slower process, and one of the film’s most endearing qualities is the way it stretches Mayo from a violent, smug, hostile loner into a man who can love unselfishly and be a friend without compromise to his fellow recruits.
Mayo wants no attachments – until he meets Paula (Debra Winger), who pretends she just wants to have a good time until he gets shipped off somewhere, knowing she runs the risk of being deserted just as her own mother was left behind pregnant years earlier by her own father.
There is nothing extraordinary about what happens to Mayo, Paula or their best friend, Sid (David Keith), or how they learn to face the future with optimism and courage despite all the terrible things they go through emotionally. However, the way every element comes together seamlessly makes An Officer and a Gentleman a gripping, suspenseful, and thoroughly moving film.
Richard Gere is perfect, and after the rough deal she got in Cannery Row (1982) Debra Winger more than lives up to the potential she showed in Urban Cowboy (1980) in a full-bodied role that gives her a real person to play instead of a caricature.
As the Polish factory worker who gets her romantic ideals from Cosmopolitan magazine, bravely meeting life’s challenges in a head-on collision, she is heartbreaking.
The best performance is by David Keith, who plays the Oklahoma hayseed with a built-in code of ethics with an intimacy and a charm that is infectious and ultimately haunting.
Louis Gossett Jr