Bat*21 is the story of Lt. Col. Iceal “Ham” Hambleton, a weapons countermeasure expert who, while taking part in a recon mission, was shot down in the jungles of Vietnam. The movie is based on a true story, and Lt. Col. Hambleton himself was a consultant on the film, so presumably the basics of the film were accurate. Peter Markle directed the 1988 film, and Gene Hackman was cast as Hambleton.
After his plane is shot down, Hambleton is the sole survivor of the incident. Complicating his recovery is an unusually high amount of activity from the Viet Cong, making it too risky for military helicopters to make a landing. What’s worse, his recon mission was to plan out an aerial assault that is still scheduled to be made; if he doesn’t make it out of the area quickly, he’s likely to be blown up in friendly fire. His sole support for most of the film is radio contact with pilot Capt. Bartholomew “Bird Dog” Clark (Danny Glover).
The jungles of Vietnam in wartime are no place for a 53-year-old technical officer… or much of anybody else.
Jerry Reed plays Col. George Walker, the officer in charge of the base. He authorizes the attempts at rescue missions, even though it endangers the lives of several for just one man, because he knows the intelligence that Hambleton has is too valuable to fall into Viet Cong hands. The cast for the film is fairly small; other than those three principal roles, only David Marshall Grant and Clayton Rohner get any measurable screen time, and only as supporting characters. This keeps the focus on Bat*21 (Hambleton’s callsign) and Bird Dog, and Hackman and Glover work well together despite not being on screen together for any but the very last part of the movie. Hackman in particular excels as a man who has fought the intellectual side of war for many years, and is only now having to confront the reality in person.
Bat*21 is an unconventional war movie, because it’s not a normal war story. There are some air strikes here and there, but this isn’t a movie about a major battle or organizing a key military strike. It’s an escape story; not an escape from a war prison, but from the war zone itself. Hambleton can’t shoot his way out, even if he wanted to; success is dependent on getting as far as he can without the Viet Cong even knowing he’s there. Tension is high throughout the film as Hambleton tries to find safety, having to avoid enemy soldiers the entire way, and needing to relay information about his escape route to Bird Dog without letting the VC (who he knows can listen in on the conversations) understand the meaning of it. The solution he finds is ingenious, even if Bird Dog ends up needing some coaching from Col. Walker on the meaning.
Please clear the runway of all meditating mechanics before landing.
The film occasionally lightens the mood with some levity between Bird Dog and his mechanic (Rohner), or one of the helicopter pilots (Grant). It also adds an occasional moment to show the humanity of the Vietnamese civilians. But for the most part, the film is a tight, tense thriller as Hambleton tries to make his way back to safety. Hackman sells the danger of the situation even when there isn’t gunfire going on around him, and the result is a very entertaining film.
Between Hackman and Glover, its intense true story, and some strong direction from Markle, Bat*21 is a film that never seems to have a dull moment. It’s easily worth watching for anybody who is a fan of either of those actors or of war movies.