August 29, 2015
Bat*21 (1988)
Grade: 73/100

Director: Peter Markle
Stars: Gene Hackman, Danny Glover, Jerry Reed

What it's about. Set circa 1971 during the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong are active in an area, and the U.S. military plans to carpet bomb the area. Lt. Col. Hambleton (Gene Hackman) suggests that a preceding reconnaissance flight, to which he is duly assigned. Their aircraft is shot down, and Hambleton ends up alone in a Vietnamese jungle riddled with Viet Cong soldiers.

The scheduled carpet bombing is delayed, and attempts are made to rescue Hambleton, featuring Captain Clark (Danny Glover) as a pilot in radio contact with Hambleton. Since their conversation is monitored by the Viet Cong, Hambleton reports his position by pretending his favorite golf course overlays the jungle. Because it is a movie, Clark's attempts to rescue Hambleton place him in conflict with his commanding officer, Col. Walker (Jerry Reed).

How others will see it. Bat*21 had the misfortune of a Johnny-Come-Lately within a parade of Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War (e.g. Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987)), most of which had bigger budgets. Thus, Bat*21 was greeted with indifference, and had a box office gross of less than $4M, despite a smattering of positive reviews from critics.

Today at, the movie has a good-minus user rating of 6.4 out of 10, and its 6K user votes is also fairly low for a 1988 movie. The attitude of "yet another Vietnam War movie" is prevalent, but one bright spot is the 6.9 user rating from females over 45, hardly a demographic expected to embrace a movie without lines from any female characters.

How I felt about it. Whenever a movie turns out to be better than expected, the next step is to determine why. A B+ Hollywood movie like Bat*21 should grade 52 or so, which makes the film about 20 points above expectations. It is also two levels better, Very Good instead of Okay.

The screenplay is credited to two people: one is William C. Anderson, the Lt. Col. whose story is presented here. The other writer, a film industry veteran, is George Gordon, whose career was chiefly making bad Saturday morning network cartoon shows. Gordon died in 1986, two years before this movie was released, which suggests that the director may have had an uncredited hand in crafting the script.

As for the director, Peter Markle, this movie came relatively early in his career. Hot Dog... The Movie (1984), as unpromising a film title as any, shows what work he was obligated to accept. Markle presumably believed that Bat*21, starring A-listers Hackman and Glover, could make his career. He was right: he has since directed countless dramas, albeit for television instead of theaters.

A sleeper candidate for the quality of Bat*21 is Nancy Banks, whose sole credit as a casting director came with the present movie. Every actor appears to belong here, always a good thing. But, probably, the credit mostly belongs to Hackman and Glover, who turn in solid performances and receive most of the screen time.

The plot is nearly an inversion of Uncommon Valor (1983), in which Hackman leads a team to rescue POWs held in Indo-China.

Since Lt. Col. Anderson wrote the source book, and is credited as co-writer, one wonders whether his input has been self-serving. Certainly, none of the film characters would call a Vietnamese citizen a "gook", and Hackman-as-Anderson regularly expresses sympathy for the villagers whose deaths he inadvertently (or, more accurately, inevitably) causes.

The movie simplifies Anderson's story somewhat. He was actually trapped in the forest behind enemy lines for 11 days, and there were multiple botched rescue attempts on his behalf. Eventually, he was rescued by canoe, a courageous act on the part of one Lt. Larry Potts whose actions are marginalized by the present movie. Still, Anderson's input makes this tightly crafted biopic more credible than most.