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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Hanoi Hilton
The Hanoi Hilton
Warner Bros. // R // November 11, 2008
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Preston Jones | posted December 21, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie

I never thought I'd ever encounter a war film that had me struggling to maintain interest, but somehow I'd missed seeing The Hanoi Hilton. Writer/director Lionel Chetwynd's enervating prisoner-of-war drama is arguably the dullest evocation of what, by rights, should be absolutely harrowing material. Instead, Chetwynd fills his characters' mouths with laughably sanctimonious dialogue and mercilessly pummels liberals, although his attempts at satire (I'm not sure what else to call them) shoot wide of the mark.

Released as part of the mid-Eighties spate of Vietnam-themed films that included Platoon, Gardens of Stone and Full Metal Jacket -- apparently, American filmmakers were ready to revisit the war a decade out -- Chetwynd's overstuffed, deadly earnest drama certainly had the scope and potential to be a truly memorable, searing work of cinema; what remains is an often giggle-inducing slog that can't quite muster the appropriate level of grittiness.

Michael Moriarty stars as Williamson, an Air Force lieutenant commander who is shot down over Vietnam in 1963. He's the nominal lead character, as an ever-greater number of servicemen drift into North Vietnam's Hoa Lo Prison (dubbed "the Hanoi Hilton" by its unwilling guests) over the next 12 years. Major Ngo Doc (Aki Aleong), a well-spoken, Jesuit-educated officer, is the seductive, evil force that wields terror over the beaten, scared American prisoners. He, of course, speaks with barely a trace of an accent; his vacillation between genteel conversation, long-winded exposition and barbaric cruelty is abrupt and, typically, hilarious. He's the least frightening villain since Col. Klink.

The years pass, torture is doled out (strangely, for a POW film, the brutality doesn't come off as very realistic -- the effects work here would embarrass most 12-year-old amateurs) and spirits are broken. The Hanoi Hilton makes quite a show out of the men communicating with one another -- shades of The Great Escape -- and keeping faith in God and country, even as they are forced to record ridiculous "confessions" for broadcast. Still, the passage of time is not convincingly rendered (haircuts remain neat and tidy, beards are scarce and most of the supposedly starving men look healthy and hale throughout), nor is there any real psychological connection with any of the men onscreen, who become mostly interchangeable by the time the credits roll.

Ultimately, Chetwynd's film is simply too facile and bungled to have any impact. Given the fact that the DVD packaging trumpets his interviews with more than 100 returned POWs as the primary source, I can't imagine any of his interview subjects being terribly thrilled with the final product. In fumbling this important chapter in American history, he's not honoring these brave men so much as he's mumbling thanks and leaving this cinematic misfire for all to ignore. A tremendously missed opportunity.

The DVD

The Video:

Presented, according to the DVD case, for the first time on home video in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this anamorphic widescreen transfer is solid, albeit unremarkable. The film, which appears to be a relatively low-budget affair (its producer, the Cannon Group, wasn't known for large outlays of cash), nevertheless appears sharp and well-saturated throughout, handling the numerous dimly lit scenes with aplomb.

The Audio:

Another hiccup in The Hanoi Hilton's presentation? Try composer Jimmy Webb's strangely upbeat score, which is recreated with no flaws on this Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack. The dialogue -- be it shouted, spoken or sobbed -- is likewise rendered cleanly, with no distortion or drop-out. Optional English and French subtitles are included.

The Extras:

However ham-fisted his filmmaking skills, Chetwynd's no dummy when it comes to bonus features. As Sen. John McCain has just been at the forefront of the American consciousness, the writer/director sits down with him to discuss McCain's own, well-documented POW experiences in the disc's lone supplement: the 19 minute, five second featurette "Perseverance of Strength: A Conversation with John McCain" (presented in anamorphic widescreen). It's revealed that McCain was one of the POWs interviewed as part of the film's pre-production; strangely, McCain doesn't offer any opinion on the finished film.

Final Thoughts:

I never thought I'd ever encounter a war film that had me struggling to maintain interest, but somehow I'd missed seeing The Hanoi Hilton. Writer/director Lionel Chetwynd's enervating prisoner-of-war drama is arguably the dullest evocation of what, by rights, should be absolutely harrowing material. Instead, Chetwynd fills his characters' mouths with laughably sanctimonious dialogue and mercilessly pummels liberals, although his attempts at satire (I'm not sure what else to call them) shoot wide of the mark. Given the fact that the DVD packaging trumpets his interviews with more than 100 returned POWs as the primary source, I can't imagine any of his interview subjects being terribly thrilled with the final product. In fumbling this important chapter in American history, he's not honoring these brave men so much as he's mumbling thanks. Skip it.

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