21 May 2005 | rmax304823
A rough lie.
It would have been easy to turn a story like this into a cheap action flick -- heroic downed USAF Colonel fights his way through enemy territory with help of heroic self-sacrificing black pilot.
It doesn't happen, exactly. The story, as I understand it, is based on fact, but I don't know how much of it is factual. Maybe the evacuation pilot, Danny Glover, really DID take off alone in a helicopter (in which he was not qualified), rescue Colonel Hambledon (Gene Hackman) single-handedly, successfully crash the helicopter he was not qualified in, and maybe the two of them then escape a horde of North Vietnamese pursuers during a "carpet bombing" of the whole area, with Glover sustaining one of those nasty but not unphotogenic shoulder wounds in the process. Maybe it IS true but it sounds a lot like rather routine fiction to me because real life is seldom so tidy. I can believe the part that golf plays in the escape plan. It's so absurd that no writer in his right mind would dream it up.
Still -- that having been said -- this is a truly worthwhile movie. Action fans will find lots of exploding fireballs if that's what they're looking for. There will also be wounded smoking helicopters spinning drunkenly downward and a man being blown up in a minefield.
But that's not what makes the movie important. The action is usually nothing more than a means to an end. In this case, the end is the education and humanization of Colonel Iceal Hambledon, USAF.
He's your normal military men, an expert on electronic countermeasures. He is 53 years old and has spent most of his life in the military. He's never seen combat. And his being shot down constitutes his introduction to what the film shows us is a pretty ugly kind of business.
Behind enemy lines he spies a column of NV troops and vehicles and calls in an air strike. Boom. Afterward the NVA shoot one of their own wounded troops, which Hambledon finds nasty. Before he knows it, stumbling through the bush, he finds an empty hootch. While scavenging it for food and water, he is discovered by its owner. Neither man understands the other's language. A physical fight follows which Hambledon can only escape from my shooting and killing the Vietnamese farmer. The farmer's napalm-scarred family show up and rush sobbing to the dead body while Hambledon backs away, stunned, saying stupidly, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." There follows a scene in which captured American fliers sacrifice themselves to save Hambledon and the Air Force then demolishes the nearby village full of soldiers and women and children. "Everywhere I go, people die," Hambledon comments sadly to himself. (I can't emphasize too strongly how much tragedy Hackman invests his lines with. They emerge as more than simply lines of dialogue. He's a fine, reliable, unflamboyant performer.) Hambledon vows that he's all done killing people -- and he is, even when he has to opportunity to shoot an armed enemy soldier who is chasing him. The Vietnames is disoriented, twirling about dizzily while a garden of slow motion flame sprouts around him. Hambledon has a bead on him but then shakes his head in disgust and looks away without firing.
Danny Glover is good too. As an actor he may have more range than he's usually given credit for. Here, as in the "Lethal Weapon" movies, he's more of a supportive sidekick than anything else. He's the guy on the other end of the line who is there when you must spill your emotions to SOMEONE. Not that he's given trite lines in the part. Hambledon hesitates at one point, then tell him over the radio, "I killed a man today." "Roger that," says Glover. He understands what Hambledon's getting at -- but what is there to say? It's combat, not Oprah Winfrey. Also, anyone who wants to see Glover demonstrate that range might want to check out "Switchback," in which he is a good-natured, avuncular, laid-back serial killer.
Sometimes I wonder if some of us have forgotten just how lousy an experience war is for everyone involved -- for us, for our opponents, and for the civilians drawn willy nilly into it. This film is a decent reminder.