Behind Enemy Lines (2001)

In my definition a good war movie is a good anti-war movie. If we apply this definition then Behind Enemy Lines is either not a good movie or not a good war movie. Since I personally enjoy it, I would say, it is simply not a war movie but, like Hunt for Red October and similar films, one of the movies that is based on a war premise. Only in my opinion Behind Enemy Lines is far better than its predecessors, the old-school cold war movies. Not sure why I’m so fond of it, but I am. It’s a guilty pleasure, has some great scenes and pictures and a pretty decent score. And I like Gene Hackman far better than Sean Connery.

Superhornet navigator Lt Burnett (Owen Wilson) and his pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) are on an unauthorized reconnaissance mission over Bosnia in the early 90s. They fly off course in a non-flyover zone and take pictures of a mass grave, hidden by the Serbs. Unfortunately they are spotted by ground troops.

They have been stationed on the USS Carl Vinson for quite a while. Burnett is fed up with the Navy. He feels that they are a long way from WWII where American intervention made sense and that they aren’t doing any good. He wants to leave the Navy as fast as he can. His commanding officer, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman), is less than thrilled. He doesn’t share his opinion and doesn’t want to lose a good man. He sends him on this reconnaissance mission to remind him how much he loves to fly and hoping he would make up his mind.

When the Serbs see the plane fly over the zone where the grave is hidden, they track it and shoot it down. Those air scenes are pretty great and one of the strengths of this movie. Pilot and navigator get out alive but since the Serbs know they have taken pictures of something nobody should know about, they are hunted. From now on the movie follows Burnett’s attempt to escape. One suspenseful scene follows the next. While some of them are not very realistic, they are entertaining and suspenseful.

Burnett is left on his own for most of the time as Reigart cannot send a chopper to get him out because this would endanger the peace process and the mission wasn’t authorized by High Command to begin with.

Burnett is tracked down by his enemies more than once and each escape is narrower than the other. My favourite scene is the one in which he has to cross a mine field in order to escape.

Behind Enemy Lines is a total failure as anti-war movie but works extremely well as a war-themed action adventure. The only real flaw is the disappointingly corny ending.

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Bat*21 (1988)

Bat 21 Movie Poster

Sometimes you get a movie. Sometimes you don’t. I must admit I didn’t get Bat*21. I found it lame and somewhat uninspired despite the fact that it is based on a true story. Gene Hackman is a decent actor and so is Danny Glover but still… I had to look it up in my book on Vietnam movies to understand what the director had wanted with this movie. Apparently Bat*21 was meant as an answer to Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and other Vietnam infantry combat movies who focus on young soldiers and officers. The two main characters in Bat*21 are in their fifties. The movie wants to show that older soldiers are less gung-ho and that it might have been better if they had had their say instead of the young ones. In the movie, Hackman’s and Glover’s characters stand for maturity and taking calculated risks. They are aware of the fact that this war is senseless and should be ended.

Lt Col. Hambleton (Gene Hackman), a weapons countermeasures expert, is shot down over enemy territory. His knowledge is vital to some of the missions and the Air Force wants to do everything to get him back. As a first measure they send out reconnaissance pilot Cpt “Bird-Dog” Clark (Danny Glover) who has flown  far more missions than anyone can count. Without seeing each other they develop a relationship and Bird-Dog is seriously concerned for “Ham”. The territory he is in is hot. Enemies are swarming the place and the area should be carpet-bombed in a couple of days. If he can’t get out in time Ham will be killed one way or the other.

“Ham” is quite apt at hiding, he spends the night in the jungle and more than once an enemy patrol doesn’t see him because he is so well camouflaged. Thanks to a “code” referring to golf holes he can transmit his position to Bird-Dog who monitors him from above.

It’s not an awful movie and for those who love choppers and fighter planes, there is quite a lot to see. It did remind me of a lame version of Flight of the Intruder without the corny end. If you like stories based on true accounts you might still enjoy it. It was quite tricky to get out of that mess alive. Despite a lot of good intentions I can’t rate it any higher than 2.5/5. It certainly achieved to be the antithesis of Platoon, Hamburger Hill and Full Metal Jacket.

If you are looking for really great Vietnam movies see my post 10 Vietnam War Movies You Must See.

Under Fire (1983) War and Journalism or Whose Side Are You On?

I don’t take sides, I take pictures (Nick Nolte as Russel Price in Under Fire)

The least you can say about Under Fire is that is an extremely interesting movie with four fascinating character portraits played by four outstanding actors.

Under Fire belongs to the war movie subgenre of War and Journalism. There are quite a lot of movies in this sub-genre and a great many are from the 80s. The Year of Living Dangerously, Circle of Deceit, The Killing Fields, Salvador, Missing and later movies like Welcome to Sarajevo (see my post).

The movie opens in Tchad. The photographer Russel Price (Nick Nolte) and the mercenary Oates (Ed Harris) meet and discuss their work. Oates points out that Price isn’t much better. He is profiting as much from every war there is as Oates is. None of them is more interested in politics than the other. When they part we know that they will meet again.

Before Price departs to the latest war zone, Nicaragua, we are introduced to two other journalists, Claire (Joanna Cassidy) and Alex Gazier (Gene Hackman). Claire and Alex are a couple but she breaks up with him before leaving to Nicaragua and we already sense she will be romantically involved with Russell.

At first when arriving in Nicaragua, Price isn’t interested in background information. He wants to know if the beer is good and what the food is like. Fortunately the movie nevertheless fills us in on the basics. We hear that the revolutionaries, headed by a guy named Rafael, fight the government of president Somoza who is supported by the US and a few other details. Claire and Price meet the French agent Jazy (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a dubious character, that seems to be in favour of the rebels, they also meet the president and his press officer.

While they are in Nicaragua – falling in love, getting to know the country – something happens to Price. He meets Oates again and sees him kill one of the revolutionaries in cold blood. This makes Price understand his own actions and how cynical they are.  He becomes aware that he cannot stay out of this anymore. It bdawns on him, that the Sandinistas are right, that the government is corrupt and supported by the US who are afraid of a communist Nicaragua. In order to support the revolution, he takes a fake picture. He serves the rebels but triggers a flood of violence during which Alex is killed by the president’s soldiers (this is based on a true story). He takes a picture of this as well and triggers a reaction in the US…

What I really liked about this movie is how subtle it portrays the different people. Nolte, Hackman and Harris are very convincing, each takes another position, stays for another point of view. The cynic mercenary Oates is probably the most stringent character, the one who will make you the most uneasy, although Jazy isn’t a bad example of double standards either. Claire was the least convincing character, she rather served as a enhancer for the others.

Apparently the movie has been considered to be problematic in the US because it openly takes position for the Nicaraguan revolution. I think this is great and daring. It is an ugly chapter in US politics and many efforts have been made to forget about it as soon as possible (Noam Chomsky has written quite eloquently about this).

The movie is visually extremely convincing. John Alcott, Kubrick’s cameraman, has filmed it documentary-style.

The topic of War and Journalism always makes me uneasy. I think we should be informed but I cannot understand how people can take pictures like vultures of dying and dead people and stay uninvolved. Maybe it is not so much journalism as photo journalism that I find problematic. I am really glad for movies like Under Fire. They are valuable and important and illustrate how everything is linked, how one deed leads to another.

There is a trailer on iMDB.

Here is just a video with scenes from the movie and the original soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.