The Magazine

Behind Hollywood's Lines

War the way we would like it to be.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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IN PAST ERAS of moviemaking, it was possible to combine great entertainment with a moral agenda--matching riveting action with a serious inquiry into contemporary events. But, beginning in the 1960s, Hollywood was transformed, first by counterculture chic and then by political correctness. For years now, big movies have come in just two flavors: You can have relentless action pictures with car crashes, naked ladies, and no character development, or you can have weepy, sloganizing, conspiracy-driven ideological clunkers.

That isn't to say some of these films aren't fabulous entertainment. But serious movie fans have long despaired of seeing a terrific movie about great issues and a heroic response to them. That may all change now, as Hollywood comes to terms with the attack of September 11. But with "Behind Enemy Lines," director John Moore has already changed the rules for the better--much better.

"Behind Enemy Lines" may be the most exciting war movie ever made. The pace is nonstop, combining amazing directness in photography with concise, almost Rumsfeldian dialogue emphasizing courage and fortitude. American Navy lieutenant Chris Burnett (played by Owen Wilson), a navigator based on an aircraft carrier, is bored and irritable about flying missions over Bosnia-Herzegovina. It isn't much of a war, at least for Americans; there's nothing at stake, and no goal except flying missions.

So he decides not to reenlist--but his letter stating his desire to leave the Navy offends his commander, Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman). You don't have to have served in the Navy to recognize the authentic commitment the admiral feels. Sent over Bosnia once again on Christmas, Burnett is shot down by a Serbian missile. The film covers the effort to retrieve him. The main obstacle is the smarmy attitude of a European naval officer of unstated nationality, but clearly intended to be Spanish, Admiral Juan Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida).

If the story sounds familiar, it should, since it is loosely based on the experiences of Navy lieutenant Scott O'Grady, who was rescued from Bosnia by American forces after a similar shooting down by the Serbs. While the film is neither geographically nor chronologically correct, it is morally accurate. The true story, or stories, here, involve something other than evasion and survival. "Behind Enemy Lines" is really about uncovering the truth of what happened to the Bosnian Muslims and about European moral abdication.

But because the film's main goal is to hold the moviegoer's attention, the message never interferes with its plot and tempo. Director Moore seems to have an Eisenstein-like understanding of the raw impact of warships as symbols of power. Call this picture the "Battleship Potemkin" of American interventionism. One scene, a choreographed set of explosions in a devastated factory, could have been dropped. But the film includes none of the ludicrously improbable feats of strength and martial arts on display in most action thrillers. Owen Wilson has been criticized as callow in the role of Burnett, but the truth is that he captures exactly the mix of boldness and vulnerability we see in American youths sent off to war. Burnett never becomes a comic-book character. Neither do the Serbs. Having covered the collapse of Yugoslavia since 1987, I can attest to the accuracy of their portrayal. And the Bosnian Muslim driving a pickup while listening to 1950s rock 'n' roll is also an exact depiction.

"Behind Enemy Lines" is a picture that works because the audience knows in advance how it will end: with American honor bright. It shows no Americans chickening out, protecting their bureaucratic positions, lying, or betraying their comrades. This is who we want to be--and it is also the truth about the Balkan Wars. There could be no better time for this movie to appear. If we had any sense, the first thing we'd do is dub this movie into Arabic and Urdu--and run it on a loop from a satellite, beamed to the Middle East, for the next six months.

Stephen Schwartz is completing a new book to be called "The Two Faces of Islam."