This week’s pick is a salute to U.S. Navy pilots during the Vietnam War with director John Milius’s (Red Dawn, The Wind and the Lion, Rough Riders) Flight of the Intruder (1991), which was based on the novel written by former A-6 pilot Stephen Coonts. The film stars Brad Johnson (Lt. Jake ‘Cool Hand’ Grafton), Danny Glover (Cmd. Frank ‘Dooke’ Camparelli), and Willem Dafoe (Lt. Cmd. Virgil ‘Tiger’ Cole).
The title of the film is based on the A-6 Intruder which was an all weather, low altitude, twin jet engine bomber which was the U.S. Navy’s workhorse throughout the Vietnam conflict. Its primary function was to destroy road junctions, radar and missile installations, and to assist ground troops in combat.
The bomber had no defensive weapons and was vulnerable to other attack aircraft. Certain variations of the fighter are still in use today with the U.S. Navy and it is considered to be one of the finest attack aircraft ever produced for the American military.
The film opens with news audio clips of American involvement in Vietnam since the mid 1960s and how the war has escalated to a standstill, especially for pilots who are restricted to enter North Vietnamese airspace since 1968 during the final months of Lydon B. Johnson’s presidential term.
It was hoped by that administration that restricted bombing of the North would allow for peace negotiations to end hostilities. The film flash forwards to 1972 where there has been little headway for peace negotiations and the United States is entering its seventh year in the conflict.
Brad Johnson stars as Lt. Jake Grafton who is an A-6 pilot stationed aboard the U.S.S. Independence. Grafton and his bombardier/navigator Lt. Morgan ‘Morg’ McPhearson are on a routine patrol over the Gulf of Tonkin, outside North Vietnamese airspace. Grafton and Morg’s mission is to destroy a suspected enemy radar installation which threatens the area and other American patrols. Grafton is young, idealistic and a very skilled pilot who begins to question the relevance of these so called “truck parks” which may or may not house enemy weapons or personnel. While returning to the U.S.S. Independence, Morg is shot through the canopy by a Vietnamese peasant as they were flying below radar detection. Grafton declares an emergency while attempting to land his plane. Hoping to get Morg immediate medical attention results in his death due to the massive amount of blood he lost while trying to make it back aboard the carrier.
Grafton accompanies Cmd. Camparelli (Glover) into a debriefing where Grafton is shook up and covered in the blood of his shipmate. Camparelli tells Grafton to put the death of Morg behind him and to go about his duties. Grafton feels that the so called destruction of a truck park was not worth the life of his friend and navigator. Camparelli tells Grafton that the targets are chosen for specific political reasons and that its not his place to decide what targets should be chosen. This is where Grafton now becomes disillusioned over his role in the war and why good men are sacrificed over such trivial targets.
The arrival of Lt. Cmd. Cole (Dafoe) as Grafton’s new navigator/bombardier helps to set the pace of the rest of the film. Cole is a seasoned veteran who has returned to Vietnam after two previous tours of duty. As he is being unloaded with new personnel arriving on the Indy, he stops to take in the sensation of being aboard a carrier once again which feels like home to him.
Grafton and Cole are paired with one another for what is known as ‘Iron Hand’ duty, fully loaded A-6 bombers which are to fly in before other bombers in order to destroy their assigned targets, and to also be shot at by surface-to-air missiles, and Soviet MiG-17 fighters. After a successful mission against a SAM site (Surface-to-air missile) emplacement, Cole realizes that he has found a new partner in Grafton. Still feeling disillusioned over the death of Morg, Grafton proposes to his new partner Cole that they bomb the North Vietnamese capitol of Hanoi, where “SAM City” (a massive stockpile of missiles) is located in the center of the city. Cole tells Grafton that he can have him court martialed for even suggesting such a plan. Cole tells Grafton that he’ll forget that they even had the conversation. After the death of another fellow pilot ‘Boxman’ (Tom Sizemore) over another useless target, Cole decides to help Grafton in a clandestine mission to bomb “SAM City”.
The best part of the film is the planning that Grafton and Cole do in order to successfully bomb Hanoi. They cajole intelligence officer Lt. Guffy (Douglas Roberts) to give them aerial recon photos of Hanoi and the best route to take in order to enter the city and avoid the massive anti-aircraft batteries which could threaten their mission. Grafton and Cole decide to use two bombs on a nearby power plant target, and use the remaining eight to destroy SAM City. Their first bomb run nearly results in their deaths due to the bombs not fusing and dropping due to computer failure. They make a second bomb run and are successful in destroying their target. Returning to the carrier, Cmd. Camparelli informs them of the serious repercussions of their personal mission, and its effect on the Paris peace talks. Cmd. Camparelli places both men under arrest and has them escorted to Subic Bay, Philippines for a court martial.
As Grafton and Cole are pleading their case to a board of navy brass why they did what they did and to avoid long prison sentences, information is revealed that President Nixon has ordered a new unrestricted bombing campaign of North Vietnam code named Operation Linebacker II which results in the charges against Grafton and Cole being dropped. Camparelli is still angry with both Grafton and Cole’s lack of respect for the chain of command and has them grounded while the Independence squadron leads the way for other bombers as Linebacker II begins. Like all great war movies, the heroes come to the rescue and show what they’re made off by film’s end.
Despite certain lulls in the film such as Grafton’s involvement with a widow played by Rossana Arquette are needed for character development, but the real parts of the film are the action, the assortment of planes, and flying sequences which are brilliantly filmed by Milius and crew. Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, and Brad Johnson are fantastic in the film and are very realistic in their portrayals. I’ve always liked Brad Johnson as an actor and he is very believable as an aviator. Look for cameos by up and coming stars like Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan), Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction), John Corbett (The United States of Tara, Lucky), future Presidential candidate and actor/Senator Fred Dalton Thompson, and a young, pre Friends David Schwimmer as the duty officer who pairs Grafton and Cole for ‘Iron Hand’.
Flight of the Intruder is available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc through Paramount/Lionsgate Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.