Behind Enemy Lines

Nov 28, 2001 at 12:00 am

In Behind Enemy Lines, there’s an interesting tension between the worship of high-tech military hardware and an ambivalence as to its use. Not that this is an anti-war movie. To his credit, director John Moore hasn’t made it Top Gun Redux, either. He’s created a new hybrid, a film which both exalts the military as a necessary, stabilizing force in the choppy currents of geopolitics, yet calls into question some of the basic tenets of modern warfare and the ambiguous role of peacekeepers. The crisis of conscience here comes not with the question, “Should we fight?” Instead, these characters ask, “Why aren’t we doing more?”

It’s Christmas in the not too distant past and a massive aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, is stationed in the Adriatic Sea. The pilots of F-A18 Superhornet jets are relegated to data-gathering reconnaissance missions over the war-scarred landscape of Bosnia. All of which makes navigator Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) wonder why he should stay in the Navy if all his training to fight for what’s right (aka the American Way) means watching a war from the sidelines.

Again, the film walks a fine line. Wilson, a performer who can easily fuse contradicting characteristics, doesn’t portray Lt. Burnett as particularly gung-ho or jingoistic, just disappointed that he’s not allowed to be all that he can be. But to old-school Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman), Burnett’s merely a spoiled brat who hasn’t learned the true meaning of discipline.

Then, in a sequence which boldly declares that Behind Enemy Lines is above all an adrenaline-pumping action movie, Burnett’s plane is shot down after his vain attempt at eluding guided missiles. Now Burnett’s on the run, pursued by soldiers (whom he inadvertently photographed digging mass graves). But Reigart’s first impulse — to go in and rescue his downed man — is thwarted by NATO liaison Admiral Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida), who doesn’t want to sacrifice the fragile, negotiated peace for one American life.

This discussion of political gray areas, of the greater good and the big picture ruling individual decisions, is all well and good, but there’s never any doubt whose philosophy will ultimately triumph, or that Burnett will survive. Like Air Force One, Behind Enemy Lines defines Americanism as the triumph of decency and bravery over tyranny and terror. It’s a heaping helping of cinematic comfort food.

Visit the official Behind Enemy Lines Web site at

Read Serena Donadoni's interview with director John Moore, who's worried about the film's ultimate effect on American audiences.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].