The Hanoi Hilton
Directed By: Lionel Chetwynd
Starring: Michael Moriarity, Jeffrey Jones, Paul Le Mat, David Soul, Stephen Davies, Lawrence Pressman, Aki Aleong, Gloria Carlin, John Diehl, Rick Fitts
The DVD of The Hanoi Hilton had been scheduled for release earlier in 2008, but was apparently postponed when it became apparent that Senator John McCain, an interview subject during the film's preparation as well as on the disc's special features, would be the Presidential nominee for the Republican Party. Decoupling the DVD's release from the inevitable media maelstorm of a modern Presidential election was probably the right thing to do, and its eventual release date shortly after the election on the US Veteran's Day holiday in 2008 seems completely appropriate.
The Hanoi Hilton follows the experiences of a number of American POWs detained at the infamous Hoa Lo prison given the ironic alias which provides the film its title. We are initially introduced to Naval aviator Lieutenant Commander Patrick Michael Williamson (Moriarity), who is shot down early in the conflict and detained at Hoa Loa. During an initial interrogation from Viet Cong Maj. Ngo Doc (Aki Aleong), the urbane, well-educated head of the camp, Williamson is ominously told that since the USA has not officially declared war, he is a criminal for whom the Geneva Convention does not apply. After that, Williamson goes for months without contact with any other prisoners, with his only indication that he is not alone being graffiti scrawled on walls. Eventually, as more POWs are brought to the facility, he is allowed contact with a few of them. At this point, the film becomes more episodic in nature, frequently jumping ahead in time to cover the experiences of several of the POWs over a period of nearly a decade. Episodes focus on the awful conditions of the camp, the harsh treatment of the POWs, the methods the POWs use to communicate with each other, the efforts of the prisoners to maintain military order and survive, their efforts to make the names of their fellow detainees known, and the POW's peripheral encounters with anti-war crusaders and media representatives orchestrated by the North Vietnamese authorities.
Writer/Director Lionel Chetwynd compiled his Hanoi Hilton screenplay based on interviews with many former Viet Nam POWs who were detained at the infamous facility. My choice of the word "compiled" is a partial indication of one of the film's liabilities. Chetwynd interviewed in the neighborhood of 100 former POWs, and almost certainly heard well over 100 compelling stories. The film seems to want to capture the totality of their experience, but is not a sufficient vessel to carry that much information. As such it feels disjointed and poorly paced. The pacing was no doubt intended to convey the monotony of a Hoa Lo POW's existence and the importance of the infrequent moments of contact between many of them, but it ends up also undermining the narrative thrust of the film by disconnecting the viewer from characters just as they are starting to identify with them.
The film's episodic nature also calls attention to some spotty writing and awkward applications of dramatic license. In one early scene, Lawrence Pressman as the senior ranking officer detainee, Colonel Cathcart, taps out an inspirational message to other prisoners using Morse code against his cell wall. He simultaneously speaks the message while tapping, and it becomes obvious that he is not actually tapping Morse code so much as his own vocal cadence. The filmmakers handle a later scene where a detainee facing execution taps out a similarly inspiring message more appropriately via voiceover over footage of him tapping on the wall.
The film also mis-steps by making its antagonists too cartoony. While Chetwynd was no doubt told that the head of the camp was urbane (a word that Senator McCain uses to describe him in the interview included as an extra on this DVD), Chetwynd directs actor Aki Aleong to play him almost like he is "Dr. No". Michael Russo, as a sadistic, murderous Cuban who arrives at the camp after the late 60s "re-alignment" of the Viet Cong with the Soviets, is also allowed to overact and handed some pretty corny dialog. He still comes off as appropriately threatening and sadistic in his grueling interrogation scene, but another sequence where every interaction between POWs and an American press crew traveling with a "Jane Fonda"-esque celebrity is accompanied by an oversold reaction shot of him being happy or angry is ruined by directorial indulgence. That scene and an earlier one involving a western journalist interviewing POWs could have been scathing indictments of journalists and anti-war activists who allowed themselves to be duped into being vessels for Viet Cong propaganda. Unfortunately, they are presented in such an artless and indelicate matter, with the British journalist in the earlier scene portrayed more like an active Communist than a dupe and the vapid actress in the later scene getting served improbable lectures from multiple POWs telling her every thing that is wrong with what she is doing, that it robs them of their dramatic impact and undermines their point.
On the positive side, the film does benefit from a strong performance from Moriarity as the senior detainee at the facility. Early sequences involving Williamson's acclimation to the prison camp are compelling and well-acted with minimal dialog. His final scene in the movie is also quite moving. While the use of on-screen titles to indicate the passage of time is fairly prosaic, other visual touches are more clever, such as the progressive re-alignment of the pictures on the wall behind Maj. Ngo Doc's desk over the years inclusive of the replacement of Chairman Mao with pictures of Lenin and Marx adjacent to Ho Chi Minh and changes made for the placation of visiting media.
While the movie is somewhat awkward in its construction and occasionally artless and clichéd in its execution, its heart is usually in the right place, and the service of American POWs in Viet Nam deserves to be honored. The subject of how the Viet Cong exploited western media and anti-war sentiment would be compelling enough to support a better made movie as well. While American POWs deserve a better movie, this is the film they got, and if nothing else, it will hopefully encourage viewers to seek out more compelling documents of their experience such as Vice Admiral James Stockdale's book: "A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection".
The film is presented in a video transfer/encoding that fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. The film element used for transfer seems to have a noticeable inconsistency in sharpness from shot to shot, with lower light shots faring the worst, that was characteristic of a lot of modestly budgeted films from the 1980s. That being said, the video presentation looks like an honest rendering of the film element with natural but usually not excessive grain reproduced faithfully with good compression and few signs of detrimental video processing.
The film's audio is carried by a Dolby Digital 2.0 pro-logic surround track. Dialog is normally dead center with occasional wide stereo music and sound effects. The surrounds are used sparingly but effectively, which is appropriate since most of the film takes place within the oppressively claustrophobic prison environment.
The only extra is an interview featurette entitled "Perserverance of Strength: A Conversation with John McCain (19:05). Well, at least that's what it is called on the DVD box and DVD Menu. When the viewer plays the featurette, its on-screen title turns out to be : Strength Through Perserverance: A Conversation with Senator John McCain. As either title would suggest, this featurette consists entirely of a one on one interview between Director Lionel Chetwyn and US Senator and former five and a half year "Hanoi Hilton" detainee John McCain. Chetwyn's long-winded questions are more like complete answers/mini-lectures unto themselves that usually end with something along the lines of "What would you say to those people?" or "I wonder if you could comment on that?". Experienced politician McCain handles the situation deftly and offers interesting and thoughtful responses.
The DVD is packaged in a standard Amaray case with no insert with a graphically simple cover image of Moriarity blindfolded in his prison uniform seated on a board.
The Hanoi Hilton dramatizes the serious subject of American POWs in Viet Nam in a manner that is heartfelt, but frequently awkward and clichéd. It is presented on DVD with a decent visual presentation that seems limited only by the film's modestly budgeted origins and the vagaries of 1980s film stocks. The Pro-Logic stereo track exhibits good fidelity and seems appropriate for the material. The only extra is a 20 minute sit down conversation between Director Lionel Chetwynd and Senator John McCain, a former POW at the actual "Hanoi Hilton".