It’s the early 1990s and Daniel (Trent Ford) is a Navy fighter pilot, following in his admiral father’s footsteps. He’s made a pact with his friend, Will (Morgan Spector), that they will do whatever it takes to get on the programme to be astronauts, even though there are questions about Will’s night vision, which may have caused an almost fatal jet crash.
Into their tight-knit group arrives Matthew. Daniel starts to have feelings for Matthew that go far beyond friendship, even though he has a longterm girlfriend and Matthew is married. It seems Matthew may feel the same way, especially after a night in New York involving shirtless dancing, two women and a hotel room.
An investigator is sent to figure out whether something is being hidden about Daniel and Will’s plane crash. However, after he hears that Daniel and Matthew were seen in a gay bar, he starts looking into them. It’s still an era when being gay in the military is illegal, and where even innuendo can be enough evidence to end someone’s career. As the net begins to tighten, both men must take stock of their lives, exacerbated by Will increasing jealousy that his friendship with Daniel has changed since Will arrived.
DMW Greer directs Burning Blue, based on his 1995 play of the same name. It was acclaimed when the stage version first debuted at The Kings Head Theatre in London, which happened while gay people were still banned by the military in both the US and UK, and shortly after Bill Clinton had instituted the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy (which as noted in the end credits, was supposed to allow gay people to serve as long as they shut up about their sexuality, but actually resulted in more people being discharged for homosexuality than beforehand).
Despite the movie being made 20 years later, there’s been little updating. Indeed, the whole thing has an odd 90s TV movie feeling to it despite being made in 2013, almost as if the film isn’t just set in the early 90s, but was made then too. There’s also an odd timidity about showing anything gay, so it’s sometimes oddly difficult to work out whether anything has happened between the guys beyond some hair tousling and a brief kiss. It’s not even 100% clear what went on between them in New York, which is a key turning point in the movie, as we’re pretty much only shown heterosexual activity, but after that they talk like they had sex with one another. It’s all a little confused, to the point you could interpret the women involved as not being real, even though it shows them there. Or perhaps two guys having sex with different women while in the same room, is gayer than I realised.
I almost wonder whether in 2016, this isn’t a film for gay audiences. Things have changed so much for gay people on screen, that something so restrained starts to feel like it’s hiding something and is almost uncomfortable about its subject matter. However, there are still a lot of people out there who do cringe about anything gay on screen, so perhaps the idea is that this is a movie for them, to demonstrate the basic unfairness of banning gay people from the military, something quite a lot of people would still like to reinstate. Maybe the hope was to get to their hearts and minds, even though it’s difficult to imagine they’d watch it.
Even for them though, it’s likely to feel a little old fashioned. While Burning Blue takes on an important subject, and something that’s well worth dealing with on screen, its lack of context makes it feel more like a time capsule than a fully formed look back at the homophobia of the early 1990s, to the point that it’s like it’s talking about history rather than something that still has repercussions today. That’s also partly because while it has been expanded from the stage, it’s still a low budget film that feels rather constrained. It all adds up to something that ought to be more emotionally affecting than it is. That’s something that’s particularly problematic when characters are telling Daniel how upset he must be, as we haven’t seen an awful lot that would justify him being as upset as he’s supposed to be, other than by inference.
It’s not a bad movie and in the mid-90s would probably have seemed an okay one, but it’s a little too trapped in the era it’s talking about both in story and in style to really succeed today.
Overall Verdict: This gay Top Gun (or gayer Top Gun) takes on a worthy and important subject, which had quite an impact as a play in the mid 1990s. However, it’s so stuck in that era that despite being made in the 2010s it has the feel of a rather repressed 90s TV movie that lacks the impact it might have had.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac
Burning Blue is available on Digital Download in the UK from 7 November on iTunes and other platforms.