Behind Enemy Lines
review by Gianni Truzzi, 30 November 2001

Hollywood really misses the Nazis. They made perfect and most satisfying villains; unambiguously evil, white and Christian, they could always be safely sinister without upsetting a vocal ethnic group or alienating someone's politics. No wonder Mr. Spielberg keeps trotting them out for Raiders of the Lost Ark or Schindler's List. It's gotten tiresome, though. Movies need a new reliable bad guy. In Behind Enemy Lines, a film that bravely uses the Bosnian conflict as its backdrop, you can almost hear the director's sigh of relief, secretly thanking heaven for the shameless brutality of the Serbs. 

While witnessing their Einsatzgruppen-like tactics, hotshot navigator Navy Lieutenant Chris Burnett (Zoolander's Owen Wilson) gets into trouble while on a routine reconnaissance mission, when a Serbian unit determined to cover up their ethnic massacre shoots Burnett's F/A-18 Superhornet jet down and murders his wounded pilot. With a master tracker on his heels, Burnett has to scramble to reach a safe pickup point.

His commander, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman) struggles with his NATO superiors to allow a rescue, at the risk of scuttling a fragile peace agreement. It doesn't help Reigart's judgment any that he had just given the impish Burnett a firm dressing down for his poor soldier's attitude, and assigned him the Christmas day mission as a punishment.

Although never explicitly acknowledged, Burnett's plight is loosely based on Air Force Captain Scott F. O'Grady, the pilot from Spokane, Washington who heroically survived his own crash in hostile Bosnia. As always, there is life and then there's the movies. Burnett is no clean-cut stoic, but a complainer who, prior to his travails, is sick of "watching not fighting" and frustrated enough with peacekeeping to consider leaving the Navy. He hides under corpses, and his pursuers search for him among the murdered instead of just riddling the entire pile with bullets. He races through the center of a series of trip wires, yet manages to outrun the columns of explosions he sets off. Burnett never chews on bark to survive; in fact, he never seems to eat at all, except for quenching his thirst with a product-placed Coca Cola (which, with its sugar and caffeine, is probably the last thing a dehydrated soldier should drink).

The flash-paced action by first-feature director John Moore excites initially (especially the first sequence in which the Stackhouse tries to evade the attacking SAMs), but the piling on of devices, such as the freeze-frame, slow motion and use of hand-held camera shots to ratchet up the tension rapidly become irritating. One is not surprised to learn, given his lack of finesse, that Moore's main accomplishment before this film was creating a SEGA video game commercial. He uses a familiar blue tint on his film stock   familiar, that is, to those who regularly watch National Geographic specials --to depict winter in a godless land.  It's the same visual look perfected by photographers in any spread on Cold-War Eastern Europe, where, it seems, the sun deems the people unworthy.

By all measures of filmmaking, Lines is a mess, but it will probably do well, just as so many pictures that offer good fireball explosions do. It's not that the audience for this kind of movie doesn't know any better or care, but they are willing to suspend their skepticism for material that entertains while supporting their point of view that peacekeeping is fruitless, or that the military is always sold out by politicians or (as here) durned foreigners. To be candid, Behind Enemy Lines is just how I feel while watching most combat-action flicks, with their muscle-bound jingoism, xenophobia and devotion to mil-tech and jargon. Yet these very qualities are what will draw and satisfy its viewers.

Which is why I am grateful that Lines at least manages to address the tragedy of Bosnia with at least moderate intelligence and sympathy for its victims. Tackling the issue at all deserves some admiration; the Balkan wars are a subject so numbingly complex that writing about them is nearly as much of a quagmire as negotiating their peace settlement. While it would be far too grandiose to say that Lines transcends its genre, it does lightly hover above the well-worn trench of its conventions.

I would not recommend Lines to anyone: I would push them to see Welcome to Sarajevo or Ademir Kenovic's The Perfect Circle instead. But if Behind Enemy Lines, which illustrates that peacekeeping is a worthy, if frustrating effort, gets someone thinking, then that might be worth the price of a ticket after all.

Directed by:
John Moore

Starring:
Ethan Hawke
Robert Sean Leonard
Uma Thurman

Written by:
Owen Wilson 
Gene Hackman 
Joaquim de Almeida 
David Keith 
Olek Krupa 
Eyal Podell
Elizabeth P. Perry

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be in appropriate for
children under 13.

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