The Film: 4/5
Welcome to Port Alamo, Texas, a small community of fishermen along the Gulf Coast. Tensions have been rising in the town for a long time over the influx of Vietnamese immigrants moving in and taking a sizable bite out of the local fishing trade. The latest arrival to Port Alamo is Dinh (Ho Nguyen), an optimistic young man who dreams of owning his own fishing boat. Local fishermen led by Vietnam veteran Shang (Ed Harris) oppose the hiring of the immigrants by struggling shrimp magnate Wally (Donald Moffat), whose daughter Glory (Amy Madigan) helps run the business and has been carrying on an adulterous affair with the unhappily married Shang. The situation in Port Alamo reaches critical mass when Shang's boat is repossessed by the bank and a representative of the Ku Klux Klan (William Frankfather) arrives to stoke the fires of Nativist hatred among the other fishermen. With the help of the Klan Shang and the others seize control of the fishing territory and force the town's Vietnamese denizens to pack up and flee to more hospitable surroundings. Glory, who has broken her relationship with Shang off mostly because of his vile attitude towards the immigrants, supports Dinh when he decides to stay in Port Alamo and continue to fish. Consumed by unjustified bigotry, the actions of Shang and his fellow fishermen become more violent, and the peaceful waters of Alamo Bay are transformed into their new battleground.
When we're backed into a corner and our lives are falling completely apart there is nothing we won't do and no one we won't blame in order to ensure our own survival. Because to hell with the rest of the human race, especially if their skin isn't the same as ours or they don't worship the same god as we do. Maybe we hate them because of their political sympathies or whom they choose to take to bed. The reality is that many of us are too afraid to confront the harsh truth that more often than not we are our own worst enemies. But in order to coexist with the rest of humanity you have to first accept that regardless of whether or not our problems are the fault of ourselves and ourselves alone, they never are. Sometimes we come up against forces beyond our control or comprehension, organizations that would take the union of several large nations and an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands to bring them down (or at the very least a small but highly skilled team of attorneys and a few honest politicians on the job), and since we can't beat them to death with our bare hands or firebomb their headquarters we pick weaker targets and refocus our impotent rage on them. Families are torn asunder, friendships end in the blink of an eye, entire communities are burned to the ground, and destructive and costly wars are kicked into high gear.
That, in a nutshell, is the essential truth at the heart of Alamo Bay, a little-seen drama released in the mid-1980's when studios were shunning inexpensive and original films and throwing away millions of dollars on the latest high concept tentpole blockbusters. Based on true events - with certain names and actions changed for the sake of the ever-irritating dramatic license - director Louis Malle (Elevator to the Gallows, Atlantic City) and screenwriter Alice Arlen (Silkwood)'s film is a soulful and chilling exploration of a moment in our recent history when uncontrollable bigotry drove a group of average Americans to illogical extremes. I had seen parts of the movie on Bravo back in the day when it used to be an interesting cable channel that specialized in showing classic art house films and intelligent programming like Inside the Actors’ Studio (as opposed to the mindless receptacle for hoary reality shows it exists as today). But its lack of availability on home video for decades prevented me from seeing Alamo Bay in full until Twilight Time remastered the film for its first Blu-ray release this year. Malle’s feature was never meant to be a mass audience favorite, but not even the most open-minded of the nation’s critics were willing to give it a shake at the time of its abbreviated theatrical run. It was relegated to the status of a minor footnote in the careers of its acclaimed director and his two stars Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, and to this day the film’s reputation is mostly defined by the soundtrack composed by music industry legend Ry Cooder - a reputation justified by the fact that Cooder’s score is one of the best he ever composed for a motion picture.
Intense and irrational bigotry has always been able to stoke the fires of mob rule and lead to the destruction of lives and souls without accomplishing anything but to satisfy the egos and preconceptions of those who would be willing to unquestionably follow its sway. That is one of mankind’s greatest failings, and chances are it will never be a thing of the past. Even when we think we have progressed beyond such blinkered idiocy as a society something comes along to remind us that a large portion of the populace still hasn’t received that latest e-mail. How else to explain the surprising ascension of the Tea Party almost immediately following the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency in 2008? Alamo Bay never feels like an artificial construct of a film industry desperate for art house respectability; Malle and Arlen give it the ripped-from-the-headlines urgency of one of Sam Fuller’s blunt honest earlier features where the story is told through well-defined character and action and the pacing never lags. The brightened cinematography of Curtis Clark, whose credits range from Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract to Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird (which this reviewer humbly admits to seeing on the big screen at the tender age 6), lends a sweat-drenched realism to the proceedings. Port Alamo looks like a real honest-to-goodness small American town thanks to the intricately detailed production design work of the late Trevor Williams, who had previously made his name on films like Daryl Duke’s crafty Canadian thriller The Silent Partner and both Dark Shadows features released by MGM in the early 1970’s and toiled on the creative teams of the first five Police Academy movies as well as the short-lived syndicated series based on the comedy franchise.
Malle and Arlen wisely tell their story from the perspectives of the three main characters: Shang, the bitter Vietnam vet who can’t see beyond his own prejudice; Dinh, the Vietnamese immigrant who isn’t out to take work away from his American peers in the fishing business but to make his own way in a foreign land; and Glory, who sits uneasily in the middle of the conflict and fosters a friendship with Dinh while trying to maintain a sense of loyalty to Shang to the point of briefly rekindling their once-passionate romance. Both Harris and Madigan deliver fine performances as the two former lovers united by a fading spark but ultimately driven apart by the hatred that has consumed Shang’s soul, but it is the relative newcomer Ho Nguyen who outclasses both his more-accomplished colleagues as the sweetly optimistic Dinh. Nguyen, who only appeared in one other film - the 1991 Jack Fisk-directed telefilm Final Verdict co-starring Treat Williams and the late Glenn Ford - before disappearing from the acting scene altogether, imbues his character with a touching vulnerability and a quiet defiance that never allows for the harassment he endures at the hands of the Port Alamo townsfolk to interfere with his dreams of being an independent fisherman. It is frightening to watch the usually charming Harris become a rage-fueled monster willing to kill others in accordance with his diseased beliefs in a third act sequence that feels like a logical resolution to what the film has been building towards, but the actor makes the transition powerful and believable. Meanwhile, Madigan gives a heartfelt performance full of grit and emotional punch and never becomes a passive bystander in a predominantly male, cross-culture pissing contest. Donald Moffat (The Thing) acquits himself admirably in the supporting role of Madigan’s pragmatic and cantankerous father whose hiring of the immigrants over the local fishermen sets the plot in motion. Fans of Texas-based cult cinema will enjoy spotting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 heroine Caroline Williams in a early role as a blowsy waitress as well as Doris Hargrave of Eagle Pennell's seminal independent comedy-dramas The Whole Shootin' Match and Last Night at the Alamo as a schoolteacher sympathetic to the immigrants.
Alamo Bay has not been available on home video since the days of VHS and laserdisc, so its arrival on Blu-ray (skipping DVD entirely) is something of a minor cause for celebration. Plus, it looks and sounds terrific. The film is presented by Twilight Time in a very clean 1080p HD transfer in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Colors have been boosted, grain content is kept to a minimum, and the film's texture has never been sharper. Twilight has supplied the superior transfer with a solid English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack with intelligible dialogue, vibrant ambient sea sounds, and Cooder's haunting music score coming through without the slightest trace of distortion or damage. English subtitles are also included.
Extras are limited to an isolated score track that presents Cooder's dreamy soundtrack in crystal clear DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, a theatrical trailer, Twilight Time catalogue, and an informative insert booklet of liner notes written by Julie Kirgo.
Highly fictionalized despite claiming to be based on true events, Alamo Bay is nonetheless a compelling and sadly relevant film about the disturbing lengths people will go to justify their racism. Anyone who has ever witnessed a rally of Tea Party Patriots or secessionists or followed the trial of George Zimmerman and the aftermath of its controversial verdict will look at this film and realize that not a whole lot has changed in the past three decades. This is one of Twilight Time's limited edition titles. Only 3000 copies were pressed so it would behoove you to check out this splendidly acted drama in its finest home video presentation.