Judge Clark Douglas thinks that this story deserves a much better film.
For Americans captured in Vietnam, one war ended. Another was about to begin.
The year is 1964. A military officer (Michael Moriarty, Shiloh) is captured in Hanoi and placed in prison. An urbane North Vietnamese commander informs the officer that he will be freed quickly if he is willing to condemn the actions of America. The officer refuses and is thrown into solitary confinement. Over time, numerous other American soldiers are thrown into the Hoa Lo Prison, aka The Hanoi Hotel. These men will face many hardships and many forms of torture and abuse. However, they have determined to stick together. Either everyone leaves at the same time, or no one leaves. How many of these men will break, and how long will it be before they are released?
If you look at the resume of producer/director/writer Lionel Chetwynd, you will notice a trend. Most of the films he has been involved with tend to focus on subjects like the military and terrorism. Titles such as American Valor, We Fight to Be Free, and The Heroes of Desert Storm are some of his efforts. Chetwynd is a conservative activist who has an endless supply of admiration for the U.S. Military, and Hanoi Hilton is perhaps the most controversial effort of Chetwynd's career.
The film focuses on the torture of U.S. Soldiers during the Vietnam war, which is inherently a somewhat moving subject. Unfortunately, Chetwynd undermines his passionate attempts to pay tribute to these men with his sloppy political statements and his even sloppier filmmaking. The Hanoi Hilton is a well-intentioned misfire, a very dull and surprisingly uninvolving effort that just doesn't have anything new or interesting to say about the subject of torture. Chetwynd makes it known that these men are brave, and that they have sacrificed a lot. Yes, but are those well-known facts enough to sustain a two-hour film? No. Certainly not in this case.
The villains of the film are one-dimensional. We meet a polished North Vietnamese commander who runs the prison. He struts around like a Bond villain most of the time, occasionally bursting into belligerent fits of rage to remind us of just how evil he is underneath all that fancy talk. There are some terribly-written scenes involving a Cuban man who takes great pleasure in torturing soldiers. The worst offender is a moment in which the Cuban mocks a Hispanic soldier for feeling such strong bonds with a group of white cell mates. The Hispanic man responds by declaring that, "Not all trash is white!" The film obviously thinks it is dispensing great thoughtfulness and insight here.
Oh, and those liberals. Those doggoned liberals are the worst of all. Chetwynd simply can't contain himself when it comes to his portrayal of the liberal-elite-evil-communist-Hollywood-media. An incredibly obnoxious journalist comes to interview prisoners and seems positively determined to write nothing but praise for the North Vietnamese. When a soldier shows the journalist his wounds, the journalist covers them up and demands that the soldier be taken away from him. Jane Fonda is mocked via a cornball caricature of the actress (played by Gloria Carlin). I'm not saying that these subjects shouldn't receive some criticism. However, Chetwynd's attack tactics are cheap and painfully simplistic. War protesters are dismissed as mindless idiots who are just trying to win the war for the North Vietnamese. That's hardly a fair point.
Beyond all of this, the film is just plain boring. This two-hour film could have been made just as effectively in 45 minutes. I understand that the slow, repetitive nature is partially intentional. Chetwynd wants us to get a feeling for the never-ending agony of the soldiers. Unfortunately, actually sitting through the movie is a seemingly never-ending agony. There is not a single complex or original scene over the course of the entire film. We have noble, brave, frightened American soldiers being tortured for two hours by evil North Vietnamese sadists. That's pretty much it. This sort of thing has been done so much better elsewhere. For evidence, I point you to Werner Herzog's recent Rescue Dawn, which so beautifully tells the story of P.O.W. Dieter Dengler.
The transfer is not particularly good. The film is grimy and lacks focus visually. The movie has certainly endured some significant wear and tear over the years. Plenty of scratches, flecks, and smudges can be found, and there is some noteworthy color bleeding. The audio is also underwhelming, as the original score seems particularly flat at times. There is only one supplement on the disc, but it's an interesting one. Chetwynd sits down with Senator John McCain for 20 minutes to discuss the subject of real-life torture. It's engaging stuff, and probably would be even more compelling if we hadn't already heard this stuff repeatedly over the course of the 2008 presidential campaign. There is one oddity I noticed. All of Chetwynd's questions manage to include a mention of the film, but McCain never specifically acknowledges The Hanoi Hotel during his answers. I know McCain is something of a movie buff, I would have been curious to hear his thoughts on the film. Still, this is a solid bonus.
The Hanoi Hotel is a disappointing effort. It is as one-dimensional and lacking in complexity as a WWII propaganda war movie, but contains the violence and brutality of most war films of the 1970s and 1980s. Various scenes in the film inevitably conjure up memories of Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon. It never comes close to equaling those efforts. The Hanoi Hilton is an unnecessary and uninteresting film. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Interview with John McCain
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