Inhibited by Disney tameness, "Night Crossing" is too stodgy to do justice to the exciting possibilities in its subject matter -- the daring 1979 escape from East Germany by two families, the Strelzyks and Wetzels, in a homemade hot-air balloon. Still, the original exploit staggers the imagination. This sincere, if uninspired, attempt to re-create it can't help but provoke a few chills and admiration for the real-life balloonists.
Opening today at area theaters, "Night Crossing" reflects thoughtful story selection and casting at the Disney studio. Director Delbert Mann does a presentable job with the superficial continuity supplied by screenwriter John McGreevey, but their skills are not exactly electrifying. Suspense tends to dissipate under Mann's pressureless control, and McGreevey's domestic scenes have a way of nodding off into stalwart, grim-faced monotony.
The Strelzyks are played by John Hurt and Jane Alexander, the Wetzels by Beau Bridges and Glynnis O'Connor. Peter Strelzyk was a building contractor and Gunter Wetzel a mechanic in his employ. Their professions and skills allowed them the luxury of contemplating such a farfetched escape attempt. The Strelzyks are pictured as a couple in perhaps their late thirties, and although Beau Bridges doesn't look noticeably younger than John Hurt or Jane Alexander, one gathers that the Wetzels were a decade or so younger. Both couples had two sons, a consideration that makes their heroic enterprise even more agonizing. When you see eight people lift off while wedged around a centerpiece of four gas tanks on a tiny gondola, with only a few strands of clothesline forming a "protective" railing around the perimeter, the fantastic gutsiness of it all takes your breath away.
It's a shame that the movie fails to sustain its impressions of the sensory overload the escapees must have experienced while launching their half-hour flight toward freedom -- the apprehension, the biting cold, the exhilaration. Unfortunately, Mann isn't diligent enough about working up a cold sweat in close quarters. Neither the altitude nor the weather impose themselves as forcefully as they should, and none of the actors maintains sufficient eye contact to forge intimate bonds of psychological tension. Your own imagination compensates to some extent, but it's still difficult to ignore the disillusioning reminders that Mann's cast isn't really floating precariously in the chill darkness a few thousand feet in the air.
There are two beautiful shots that capture an oddly lyrical sort of terror. The first comes after the Strelzyk family fails in an initial escape attempt and their balloon eventually billows to rest with the bag nuzzling the electrified fence at the border. The second occurs during the subsequent, successful flight when a large rip is opened in the bag and an overhead camera peruses the tear with lofty detachment, as if calmly calculating the odds on disaster.
The filmmakers are shrewd enough to avoid belaboring the communist society the parents are anxious to escape or demonizing the security men obliged to apprehend them. The characters don't need elaborate explanations for seeking asylum in the West, and there's a persuasive depiction of the sort of deviousness that parents may find it essential to pass on to their children, reminding them to pay lip service to the official ideology while secretly rejecting it.
Doug McKeon seems an obtrusively wrong note as the eldest Strelzyk boy. He doesn't link up believably with either Hurt or Alexander who play his parents, but appears instead as a Disney stereotype of suburban All-American boyishness. He's like a nostalgic reflex, symbolizing the juvenile norm that Disney is gingerly attempting to transcend by tackling a sober, adult-centered adventure story like "Night Crossing."