Bat 21

bat21Variety, the show-business bible, just reported that the busiest leading man over the last five years was none other than Gene Hackman (in a somewhat dubious tie with Steve Guttenberg).

Sure enough, Hackman seems to be turning nothing down; if he is no longer exactly bankable, he’s nevertheless an actor coveted by all the good directors. Bat 21 is the kind of movie an actor such as Hackman can gamble on. Hackman doesn’t have to worry about whether every film he makes is a box office bit, so he can afford to take a flier on a more difficult-to­-categorize film. He may well have been attracted to this film through the sheer technical challenge of playing the role.

That’s because for 90 percent of Bat 21, Hackman is alone, speaking what lines he has into a walkie-talkie.

He plays an Air Force colonel who has to eject during a mission over Viet Cong territory. Alone, in the jungle, he is located by a spotter pilot called Bird-dog (Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon), who fixes his position but can’t call in helicopters to pick up Hackman until the area is secured.

So, in the course of three days of waiting, Hackman and Glover establish a friendship over the airwaves. Adding some suspense is an air strike, previously ordered by Hackman, which will obliterate the area in a matter of hours.

Everything about this situation is competently handled, although very little about it seems new. Glover’s commander (played by singer Jerry Reed, who is also the film’s executive producer) is a typical hard-barking military-man, and a gung-ho chopper pilot (David Marshall Grant) is strictly a movie creation.

Director Peter Markle (The Personals) does try to add little quirky touches around the edges, and wisely concentrates on the relationship between Hackman and Glover. Both actors are good, and Hackman is especially fine at portraying his character’s increasing sense of desperation (“You are gonna come and get me, right?” he whispers into the radio).

The movie’s main point, that Hackman discovers the hellishness of war only by being on the ground instead of in the air, comes across as heavy-handed.

Bat 21 (the title refers to Hackman’s code name) is based on a true story. It really happened to Col. Iceal Hambleton, the military expert and golf enthusiast played by Hackman.

There is an odd note sounded at the end of the movie: A postscript tells us that Hambleton now lives happily ever after. Nothing wrong with that, but the postscript says zilch about the tenacious spotter pilot who saved him. This is a peculiar, even insulting, omission, particularly after watching both men share equal time in the film for the previous two hours.

First published in the Herald, October 19, 1988

Not much of a review. I’m not sure where my concern about Hackman’s career came about, but I’m sure he was bankable enough even in 1988. Weird, for me at least, that I remember director Markle’s first film, The Personals, which was an indie in the time before the idea of “indie” had come together. He’s directed a few features and dozens of TV stuff since then. Life is getting long.


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