Flight of the Intruder is a very watchable Viet Nam film. If you like air action (as I, a quondam private pilot, do), you’ll like this film — which has some small similarities to Top Gun (1986). The plot takes a clever ride on Nixon’s decision in 1972 to begin open bombing of North Viet Nam.
Much of the aerial photography is quite spectacular, though some of it is obviously fake — kind of like the torpedoes in The Hunt for Red October (1990). The performances by the three principals in the film are convincing if somewhat stereotyped: the growly commander who underneath it all loves his ‘boys’ (Danny Glover’s Frank Camparelli); the cynical veteran who makes the romantic sacrifice (Willem Dafoe’s Virgil Cole); and the young pilot who is trying to make sense of it all and in standard Bildungsroman format ‘grows up’ in the course of the story (Brad Johnson’s Jake Grafton).
What the film is good at capturing is the frustration about the war in Viet Nam, its total politicization, the sense that nobody really wanted to win yet nobody knew how to get out, and the explosive rage on the part of the American combatants at the pointlessness of it all. Unlike this genre in the context of World War II, the Viet Nam variant depicts a kind of national rudderlessness from the president on down: nothing really works. (Kinda sound familiar in our new hyper-militarized century?) They reach a point where they can no longer countenance still another futile yet dangerous mission against non-existent targets, and hence they take matters into their own hands in rather dramatic fashion.
Because Grafton’s bombardier was killed in one of these ineffectual exercises, he is driven by a need for vengeance and a yearning for expiation. The core plot of the film is a working out of this motivation. Everything comes together when the private fantasy turns into public policy, and Grafton’s potential court-martial eventuates in his elevation to glorious heroism: just in time for him, Nixon approved the bombings!
There is a muted love interest in the film, and I thought it was handled both tastefully and in a way that appeared smoothly integrated into the action. Rosanne Arquette’s Callie, whose husband ‘lies scattered all over North Vietnam’, is an engaging and believable widow with her young daughter. Her moments of quiet domestic normalcy contrast with the public madness of the war and the sleazy bar scenes at Subic Bay in the Philippines (‘the greatest whore house east of Port Said’).
I admit I wondered about Cole’s first name, Virgil. True, it’s not an entirely uncommon name, but it does have its classical reverberations, doesn’t it? It may be nothing, but I think here of Dante’s famous guide (who [along with Homer in Book 11 of the Odyssey] himself penned an iconic katabasis [refresh your memory of that business here] in Book 6 of the Aeneid) into an underworld inferno. Virgil Cole, the bombardier and former instructor on A-6 B’s, is Grafton’s guide in more senses than one, and though I hesitate to make the latter into a wise Dante, his journey ‘downtown Hanoi’ is certainly a trip that maps itself neatly into the displaced pattern of the mythic katabasis into an underworld inferno.
Well, as I say, I may be classics-addled every time I see a film and reading too much into a mere name, but those were indeed my thoughts on this point. Make of them what you will.
I come away from this film (as I do from every Viet Nam film) still astonished that three different administrations (Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon) from both parties, for over a decade, could have let themselves be swept up in this loser’s game — all in the name, ultimately, of validating the desiccated ‘falling dominoes’ theory of Dulles and its concomitant geopolitical phobias.
Is there – some fifty years on now — possibly a contemporary geopolitical lesson here for us in 2011?