Without any hesitation my favourite film by Richard Rush, preferred even to highly acclaimed "The Stuntman", shot ten years later. Scored after hippiesploitation classic "Psych-Out" it gets a grip on the 60's counterculture in transition... when days of love & protest suddenly exploded in wild rage and resistance never witnessed before. Stepping down the duct of intoxicating, artistic power – freshly reclaimed by New Hollywood brats like Dennis Hopper, Bert Rafelson, Mike Nichols or Peter Bogdanovich – Richard Rush finally broke away from exploitation flicks and reached to his rebellious homeground, coming up with a modern tale of love and identity crisis in a cracking American society. Apart of a vivid story "Getting Straight" is also significant for Rush joining his forces with great Laszlo Kovacs for the last time – this duo could have pulled it off like no one else in my opinion – making you raise your eyebrows when all that well-balanced, technical mastery starts popping out.
But it would have never been such a great picture if not Elliott Gould with his vibrant, absolutely brilliant performance as Harry Bailey – impoverished, ex left wing activist, who wants to drop back into straight society (that's where the title comes from) by finishing his M.D. and starting new life as a school teacher. But as Harry is to gather soon: in this life it's not what you do decides about your destiny, but who you really are. He might not want to live a life of political radical anymore, but his past can be hardly shaken off in the midst of student riots on the campus, which get more nasty and brutal every day. On the top of that his girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) has just had enough of his intellectual, arrogant temper and starts a fling with a rich gynecologist... to decide if her middle class dreams are still there to be followed.
As Harry's final oral exam is closing in with all the odds staked against him, he slowly begins to lose his new conviction in shitstorm around. Although an excellent student for few university good ole' boys, he seems a danger for many other professors, who demand to keep rabid revolutionaries at bay. In the same time young activists cannot get over him going full front square, expecially his dropout friend Nick, who never seems off LSD or hash brownies. Hanging now between two worlds, Harry needs to choose what values he wants to stay committed to. But sometimes the most important decisions are taken as if we weren't in driver's seat at all. Zonked out or straight, you need to move forward sooner or later. But as our main character discovers in the end, we're all entangled pretty deeply in a web of emotional and spiritual relations, which determine our steps.
With countercultural vibe a la "Easy Rider" or "The Graduate", dashing photography by Kovacs and spirited script by Bob Kaufman (based on a contemporary novel by Ken Kolb), Elliott Gould shows his horns in a classic, theatrical manner, rarely seen in American cinema. His acting energy waves high as he utters charged, badass bits on the screen involved in verbal duels with either his girlfriend or stodgy professors. Although not without a certain comedy edge, the movie is more of an artistic commentary on the late 60's with a hearty layer of anti-establishment musings and rather intellectual, slow-pacing action. It's not one of those later silly comedies screwing around with cliches of hippie naivete to pass revolutionary stance as a drug fueled fad, which in the end turns economy into making more money on alternative lifestyle and products... it stays true to it's time and it watches today as good as it did 42 years ago.
Constructed around two weeks of real time, narration of Rush's film might seem truly obsessed with details and monologues, but it sneaks away from a trap of barely scratching a surface of the topic on the other hand. "Getting Straight" should be treated as an obligatory viewing for auteur cinema aficionados and also a precious jewel for those having a soft spot for counterculture related works. I'd say it's main value lays in smart perspective of 60's revolution as that one of profound social, cultural and individual change with interesting take on the evolution of main character and looking down on both sides of the baricade... as a curiosity Harrison Ford plays here an episodic role. Followers of Richard Rush's film career should definitely give it a go as well. They won't be disappointed, I promise.