Hanoi Hilton

June 15, 2011

This is the year of the Vietnam film, and we’re going to see the war from a few different angles: Platoon gives the ground-zero look at life at the front; Gardens of Stone shows the war at home. Now The Hanoi Hilton finds another arena for dramatizing the war experience: a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp.

Almost all of the action in this film takes place within the gloomy walls of the Hanoi prison, into which Americans are thrown at random. In elliptical style, the film covers almost 10 years, the length of stay for one solder (Michael Moriarty), who watches men come and go, fight and crack, and sometimes die.

The movie isn’t centered around an escape or anything like that; it’s more of a character study. Because a few of the characters have some surprising behavior, and most are well-acted, the film has some interest.

Moriarty might not have been the best choice as the resilient solider; he’s a mannered actor, and some of his more way-out moments are jarring. Near the end, he’s reduced to sitting on a woodpile and talking to himself, but we don’t know why, nor do we know how he recovers.

Many of the roles are given such brief attention that we can’t really become close to them. Sometimes the actor triumphs; Jeffrey Jones (the hapless principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) gets considerable depth into his role as a poetic prisoner. And Paul Le Mat hits the proper notes of terror as the POW most likely to squeal.

Writer-director Lionel Chetwynd is good at capturing the atmosphere of the camp (a string of real-life POWs are listed in the end credits as advisors, and they obviously know whereof they speak). He has a harder time sustaining the dramatic threads, and many characters are lost track of along the way.

The Hanoi Hilton is preoccupied with the survival of the prisoners. As for a political stance, it carries some of the revisionist implication (currently fashionable) that if it weren’t for all the demonstrators and bad press back home, the United States could have won the war and been done with it.

There is, for instance, a visit from an American actress—meant to represent Jane Fonda, of course—who self-righteously asks the American POWs, “Shouldn’t you apologize to the women and children you bombed?” Fonda was probably not too bright to go to Hanoi during the war. But cheap shots just make this movie seem mean and small-minded.

Platoon admits that there aren’t any simple answers to the Vietnam War, that it was a complex event. That’s where The Hanoi Hilton comes up short; it’s just too easy to blame the loss of the Vietnam War on Jane Fonda.

First published in the Herald, March 1987

The overall impression left by this film is that the North Vietnamese, while unpleasant, were hardly the villain that Jane Fonda was during the war. At which point I have to part company with Mr. Chetwynd, who has in recent years carved a niche for himself as a right-wing mischief-maker in Hollywood. The Vietnam films coming out at this time were a real phenomenon, and all the more notable for how long it took for Hollywood to reach the point of tackling the war as a “genre” unto itself (excepting the twin colossi of The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, which ruled the subject in the late Seventies).