On one level, Lionel Chetwynd's "The Hanoi Hilton" (Plaza, Westwood) is intensely ambitious. But it's an ambition that saps you. This portrayal of the torments of a group of American MIAs in a North Vietnamese prison covers 11 years of incarceration and two hours of screen time. (Sometimes, it seems as if it's the opposite.) And it's full of kitsch nobility, ersatz tragedy.
It's a sober, one-note, furiously self-righteous film: a gloomy parade of cardboard suffering, swaggering villains and speeches that sound as if they were lifted from the Reader's Digest. The characters sometimes address these sermons off camera, as if to the Eye of History--saying things like, "Know that I died not for love of country, as much as love for countrymen." (Would soldiers facing death talk like that? Well, never mind; in Jeffrey Jones' hands, the line has a fey ring, anyway.)
The film is set mostly within the cold, gray confines of the Hoa Lo prison, or "Hanoi Hilton." In it are a typical war-movie cross section: wisecracker, appeaser, gruff Marine, callow recruits, a Latino, a black, an Irishman, a Swede. (Where's the tough little Brooklynite with the the dirty tattoos?) In the face of this sub-Stalag 17 bunch, you're tempted to suggest that "Hanoi Hilton" is closer to "Hogan's Heroes" than "Grand Illusion." But that would be insulting to "Hogan's Heroes"--which had slightly richer characters.
Gradually the story settles into a battle of wills between the commandant, Maj. Lgo Doc (Aki Aleong), and the inmates--especially Col. Williamson, played by Michael Moriarty, a superb actor who here gives us two solid hours of blue-eyed rectitude.
Lgo Doc is a French-speaking fiend with an ironic manner, torturing prisoners relentlessly. In his weirdest stunt, Doc drags everyone into a Christmas dinner with Santa decals and pineapples, then throws them out when they start reciting more of their Reader's Digest sermons. Eventually, crazed with frustration, he imports an improbable torpedo from Havana: a thug named Fidel, who taunts inmates with Bronx street jive and slits their throats.
Chetwynd has a dull visual style, and he can't seem to think his way into the material. There are great possibilities here, but instead of soaking us in isolation or prison camaraderie or real conflict between captor and captives, he keeps hitting us with villains and lines that belong in the same Sylvester Stallone-Chuck Norris MIA movies he wants to counteract.
He hammers away at the idea that the MIAs suffer not because they're in a war, but because the waffling U.S. government refuses to declare war--and because, back home, a gang of naive pacifist dupes, led by J. William Fulbright, are running amok.
Midway through, he brings in a sexy anti-war Hollywood actress, touring the prisons, who's obviously intended to suggest Jane Fonda--though the actress playing her, Gloria Carlin, looks more like Nancy Sinatra. This movie star dupe is shown as a leggy, self-righteous ninny, who keeps missing what the desperate soldiers are trying to tell her. "Don't you understand?" they scream in her face, "You're being used! Used!" She still doesn't get it.
In a way, that's also the movie's implication. If we don't swallow all this, we're dupes, too. If we don't like the movie, the fates of thousands of MIAs still in Asia are on our conscience. And Fulbright's. A dubious suggestion. "Hanoi Hilton" (MPAA-rated R for language) isn't a crusade and its hardly a fitting testament for the brave men it wants to portray. It's just another failed movie: a loud, shallow fiasco that leaves you feeling used.