The new military thriller Behind Enemy Lines takes as its very loose point of departure the story of NATO fighter pilot Scott O’Grady‘s Bosnian misadventures. Shot down by Serb forces in 1995, the pilot dined on grass and insects, dodged the enemy, and embraced the Virgin Mary before being scooped up by the Marines after six emotionally and physically fraught days. For his troubles, he ate at the White House (but skipped the salad), was mentioned by media outlets more than 1,500 times, received the obligatory tongue licking from Larry King, and became a Newsweek cover boy. Within weeks of being rescued, America’s newest hero had clinched a book deal worth at least half a million; shortly thereafter, he signed with ICM. Although the real story of how O‘Grady was shot down was detailed in a Pentagon report released soon after the rescue, it was all but ignored by media more concerned with manufacturing celebrity than reporting truth, particularly about a war in which the American public evinced little interest. According to the Pentagon, not only is it possible that Bosnian Serbs specifically targeted O’Grady because they knew he‘d flown sorties over their territory, it was U.S. intelligence snafus that actually put the pilot in the line of Serbian fire.
None of this background would matter a jot if the movie didn’t play so fast and loose with it, most comically in its suggestion that the pilot‘s shootdown was instrumental in Milosevic’s eventual defeat. But Behind Enemy Lines does make a claim on history, however vague, and not just Bosnian history. Although conceived long before September 11, the film nonetheless shadows recent events by cleaving to the standard Hollywood formula of liberal pieties, technological fetishism, and a gross reverence for military authority that borders on the fascistic. (“White House, moguls agree to step up showbiz efforts,” read a recent Variety headline, in a story about Hollywood‘s so-called “contribution to the war effort.” Step up? As if Hollywood needed the encouragement.) To that end, the film is yet another of the industry’s feature-length advertisements about how neat it is to fly bombers and play war games in the mud — because, like, you know, people with weird accents are suffering, though mainly because it‘s so cool. Which is why it’s perfect that Owen Wilson, miscast and winning, is Chris Burnett, the dude in peril — a navigator shot down in Bosnia soon after mouthing off to his superior officer, Gene Hackman‘s Admiral Reigart. “I didn’t want to be a cop,” says Burnett. “I certainly didn‘t want to be a cop in a neighborhood nobody cares about.” But once Burnett is wallowing in a ravine teeming with Muslim corpses and, more important, being hunted by Serbs — and an unshaven, sneery, chain-smoking people they are — he and everyone else cares very much.
A slag heap of outrageous coincidence and shimmering be-all-that-you-can-be posturing, the film is for all intents and purposes another Top Gun retread, which is why its lies don’t register as deeply or offensively as those put forth by films like Mississippi Burning — it‘s too silly to take seriously. It seems that even the filmmakers would agree. According to the notes for Behind Enemy Lines, first-time director John Moore was tapped after the producers watched a commercial he’d directed for the SEGA video-game system: “[I]t was like a mini–feature film, telling a thrilling adventurechase story involving helicopters, motorcycles and incredible stunts, with a unique visual style and editorial flair,” producer John Davis enthused. “From that 2-3 minute spot, we could tell that John sees things differently than most filmmakers.” Well, that‘s true. Moore sees things differently than most filmmakers because he sees things as a television commercial. That’s not a dig against commercials; there‘s more visual and narrative savvy in Wong Kar-wai’s recent online ad for BMW than in most movies, and a handful of great film directors started in advertising. Bad ones, too. But the good ones make movies — not wide-screen ads or extended-play videos — and Moore hasn‘t begun to make that leap. His images are advertisements for themselves, nothing more: He sells the individual shot, along with the armed forces, but never gives his mechanistic flicker the pulse of life. “John takes you, the audience, out of a comfort zone,” said Davis, “dropping you into the middle of hell.” That’s true, too.