Hackman's Bat out of Hell
Based on the book written by William C. Anderson which itself was based on a true story, "Bat 21" is another one of those war movies which attempts to recount what life was like during the Vietnam war. I say attempts because whilst it is an interesting movie, which is at times a little hard hitting and blunt is lacking in that killer instinct to really hit it's message home.
During the Vietnam War the US army gets wind of a possible danger and in preparation to carpet bomb the whole area they send up a surveillance plane to check out the location. Except when it gets blown out of the air above an enemy filled area the only survivor is Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton (Gene Hackman - Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), a weapons countermeasures expert who has to be rescued before the enemy get their hands on him. With the aid of Capt. Bartholomew "Bird-Dog" Clark (Danny Glover - Lethal Weapon) who as an Air Force reconnaissance pilot watches over Hambleton from above, he maps out an escape route from the jungle based around the golf courses he has played. But it's never going to be an easy escape as Hambleton not only has to fight for survival but witness for first hand what the war is really like on ground level.
Being based on a true story it's hard to criticise the storyline as we follow Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton stranded in the middle of the jungle after the surveillance flight he was on gets shot down. As such there is something slightly formulaic and a little predictable about it as we get to witness how being in the middle of the war and in danger, rather that stuck behind a desk or on the golf fairways, affects the way Hambleton both feels and acts. It's not terrible and a good performance from Gene Hackman as Hambleton helps demonstrate the transformation from bravado through to regret as he is forced to defend himself against the enemy as well as watching civilians get killed.
What is noticeable is that "Bat 21" is not a glossy war movie, it doesn't ever try to glorify what happened in the Vietnam War rather than show it from a more humane perspective. As such it is quite blunt and matter of fact about things such as killing and doesn't shy away from showing what is in effect some brutal deaths. In fact it is so blunt and unglossy that when the slightly over the top ending crops up it spoils things as if director Peter Markle was forced to deliver a big crescendo finale rather than delivering one in more fitting with the journey we witness.
It is very much the performance of Gene Hackman which makes "Bat 21" work delivering that big character to start with and then we get to slowly watch him become more humble, taken apart by what he's had to do and witness. It's a nice restrained performance towards the end and Hackman also manages to deliver that sense of regret and despair to make it a believable character. Although the final scenes which end up feeling a little over the top spoil things ever so slightly as the character we had witnessed be created seems to return to over the top bravado rather than that of a man beaten down.
Aside from Hackman, Danny Glover does an admirable job of playing Air Force reconnaissance pilot, Capt. Bartholomew "Bird-Dog" Clark and although the dialogue between Glover and Hackman resides slightly on being cliche it does manage to convince us that there is some bond forming between them as he keeps an eye on him from above. Whilst "Bat 21" also features the likes of Jerry Reed, better known as Cledus from "Smokey and the Bandit" and also David Marshall Grant their impact is minimal despite some important scenes.
The trouble is that unlike other movies which cover the Vietnam war and there have been many, the fact that "Bat 21" takes it down to almost an individual level and refrains from being glossy is its sort of downfall. It fails to really hit home the message it is trying to deliver because whilst it is blunt it isn't hard hitting enough. When someone gets killed or Hambleton comes close to being discovered it doesn't really raise the tension, it fails to get you on the edge of your seat in anticipation.
What this all boils down to is that "Bat 21" is a good movie but it could have easily been so much more. The fact it takes the war down to a personal level is a good idea but it then fails to really be hard hitting despite a bluntness to the violence. And unfortunately the cliche ending spoils all the story telling which went on before.