Swing Shift Movie Review

Do the people who write the back of video boxes and DVD cases watch the movies they profile? Looking at the video box of my old copy of Swing Shift, the 1984 drama about life at home during World War II, you would think you're watching an overdramatic look at patriotism run rampant.

"There was no other time like it, and it changed our way of life forever," the box's text proclaims. The movie casts "a nostalgic eye on a time when ordinary citizens bonded to accomplish extraordinary things."

Mr. or Ms. Box Writer couldn't be more wrong. Swing Shift is as much about World War II as Boogie Nights is about the 1970s porn industry. (FYI: Demme is one of Paul Thomas Anderson's directing heroes.) The movies are about how the people act and respond among the chaos of those times, but the movies work beyond their settings and the historical generalizations attached to them. There is not one battle scene in Swing Shift, and there doesn't need to be. There's plenty to keep our attention in California, the movie's setting.

While her husband is off at war, Kay (Goldie Hawn) decides to take a job as a factory worker building fighter planes. It's partly out of boredom, partly to take her mind off the craziness overseas. Though she and the other women initially struggle at the workplace, they soon find their way. Kay becomes more independent and even starts a friendship with her co-worker and neighbor, Hazel (Christine Lahti).

Kay is clearly reborn, and as part of that she also begins dating her supervisor, Lucky (Kurt Russell, looking like he's 15), which leads into a legitimate romance and more good times. But Kay is fully aware of the reality that faces her when her husband (Ed Harris) returns. "I wish it could be like this forever," she says at a lavish New Year's Eve party. Lucky, forever the dreamer, asks her why that's so.

Demme and writer Rob Morton handle Kay and Lucky's relationship and the Harris character's return with a certain restraint, which is to the movie's immense benefit. Swing Shift takes place during a time of crisis and we certainly don't need accompanying dramatic fireworks. These are people finding their way, not finding epiphanies, and the acting falls right in line.

The performances are tinged with the realization that time is running out; that when the war ends, life has to begin again. Harris is very good as the cuckolded husband, who doesn't understand why his wife had to change to begin with. Lahti adds a lot to her role, making Hazel more than some spunky dime dancer, but a woman who's getting tired of late nights and loose morals. The war gives her a structure she can thrive in. Hawn bottles up her bubbly personality to good effect; you completely buy her renaissance. Russell, a consistently good actor, oozes the right amount of charm.

Swing Shift is certainly not Demme's best movie. In fact I'm sure he would like to forget about it. Hawn reportedly had another director shoot 30 minutes of the film, and no one wanted to own up to the screenplay -- "Rob Morton" was a pseudonym. But the movie stays with you because Demme loves all of his characters and cares about their consequences. Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson could learn a few things watching this. Or maybe they already have.


Swing Shift Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: PG, 1984


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