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'The Hanoi Hilton' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 19, 1987

If you liked "Inchon," the Rev. Sun Myung Moon-backed MacArthur tale of 1982, you're bound to love "The Hanoi Hilton." This anti-Jane Fonda POW drama "didn't perform anywhere," says Circle Theatres spokesman Freeman Fisher of the film's limited national release in March. Nevertheless, it's getting a local run following a big splash in The Washington Times and a cover story in the paper's Insight magazine. Both blasted liberal critics and "Hollywood chic" for suppressing "Hilton."

Apparently on the basis of this publicity, Cannon Films is giving the box office bomb a second chance to lay another big one. And it will too, in spite of the flap from the right wing. Never mind the politics, the old familiar red-bashing. The film's mighty right reactionism -- against the press, the first lady of leg lifts and assorted pinkos -- won't make a liberal's knee jerk, much less arouse a Reaganite. That's because its ideology is as pat as the movie itself, less a drama than a duty-bound documentation of atrocities.

Canadian writer and director Lionel Chetwynd bases "The Hanoi Hilton" on stories he collected from POWs who survived Hanoi's Hao Lo prison. Dull and unimaginative, Chetwynd treats his characters with such reverence that they might as well be saints in striped prison pajamas, martyred for the sake of some robotic patriotism. At least, his villains stand out from the host of underdeveloped heroes. Boob journalists, a doofus peacenik actress and a Cuban goon -- Michael Russo, who seems to think he's playing a pimp on "Miami Vice" -- add the unintentional comic relief.

Otherwise this salute to the human spirit is humorless and its people speechy and pious. Led by Michael Moriarty as the senior officer, the men develop methods of communication, pass messages, give comfort and support to the tortured and wounded. They are characters heroic beyond all imagining, men of epic bravery, but they have nothing to do here, no plot to evolve, no intense relationships to develop.

They are absolute victims -- the Isaacs, not the Abrahams, says a Pentagon officer, played by Jeffrey Jones. Some are 10-year captives of the sadistic Viet Cong concierge Cat (Aki Aleong) and his bullying bellhops from hell. Repeatedly beaten and cruelly tortured, the prisoners close ranks to maintain military discipline and dignity during their horrible incarceration. Eventually each man breaks and confesses his crimes, though remaining spiritually faithful to God and country.

Maybe some day Oliver Stone will tell their deserving story.

The Hanoi Hilton, at area theaters, is rated R and contains depictions of torture.

Copyright The Washington Post

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