Early in the morning on June 8th, 1995, 29-year old U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady darted from the protective cover of a forest to board a waiting Marine helicopter, ending a week-long ordeal of evasion and survival in the hills of Bosnia-Herzegovina. While on a routine NATO patrol of the Balkan war zone a few days prior, O'Grady's F-16 had been shot down by a Bosnian Serb anti-aircraft missile, forcing the veteran pilot to bail out over hostile territory. As forces of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army (JNA) and Bosnian Serb paramilitary units combed the countryside for him, O'Grady used his wits and training to evade his would-be captors for six days. At times, he was forced to lay motionless for hours on end as enemy patrols passed within only a few feet of his position, and when his rations and drinking water ran out, O'Grady stayed alive by eating insects and drinking rainwater.
Meanwhile, American military officials were unsure of whether or not O'Grady had been killed when his F-16 went down. For four days, conflicting messages were received about whether or not the downed pilot was dead or alive, until intercepts of enemy communications confirmed that the Serbs had located O'Grady's parachute and that they were in the process of locating him. However, it would be a couple of more days before concrete confirmation of the downed pilot's condition and whereabouts were received, after O'Grady was able to use his radio to call for a rescue. Within a few minutes of receiving O'Grady's transmission, a squadron of 40 aircraft were marshaled to effect a rescue, including two CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters to pick O'Grady up, Harrier jump jets and Cobra gunships to provide covering fire, and a host of F-16s and A-10 Warthogs to neutralize any Serb ground-to-air defences. Though there was a brief exchange of fire between his rescuers and pursuers, O'Grady was successfully airlifted to safety, and returned home a hero.
Though the script quickly diverges from actual events, the military action-thriller "Behind Enemy Lines" takes its inspiration from O'Grady's ordeal in the Bosnian wilderness. The film was originally slated for release in early 2002, but with patriotic sentiment among the American public at an all-time high, along with US military actions currently underway in Afghanistan, the opening of "Behind Enemy Lines" was moved up, similar to Ridley Scott's similarly-themed "Blackhawk Down". And while "Behind Enemy Lines" is essentially a rousing and technically-polished action film that pushes all the right buttons to inspire several rounds of high-fives and cheers, it also makes some pointed remarks about the non-interventionist and compromise-laden policies of the United Nations and NATO during the Bosnian War-- policies which needlessly prolonged the conflict and blocked efforts to protect the Bosnian Muslims from 'ethnic cleansing' by Serb aggressors.
The action kicks off at an unspecified time in the mid-1990s, at the height of the Bosnian conflict. Aboard the Adriatic Sea-based aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, Lt. Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson of "Zoolander") grows increasingly restless and frustrated with being a 'cop on a beat that no one cares about'. However, the uneventful routine is turned upside-down when Burnett and his co-pilot Lt. Michael Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht of "American Outlaws") are shot down by the Serbs after straying from their reconnaissance flight path and capturing photographic evidence of mass graves. Though both pilots are able to eject in time, Serb forces quickly catch up to them, kill Stackhouse, and force Burnett to run for his life through the Bosnian countryside.
Meanwhile, back on the USS Carl Vinson, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman, seen recently in "Heist") tries to mount a rescue effort for his downed pilot. Unfortunately, he is stymied by the political maneuvering of NATO Admiral Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida of "Clear and Present Danger"), who is concerned that a rescue operations would cause irreparable damage to a fragile peace accord currently in the works.
"Behind Enemy Lines" is the handiwork of first-time feature film director John Moore, who had previously worked in commercials. This is of little surprise upon initial inspection of the film, which uses dozens of MTV-style techniques to accentuate the on-screen action, putting even last week's "Spy Game" to shame. With the help of cinematographer Brendan Galvin, Moore paints war-torn Bosnia as a bleak and cobalt-tinted frozen landscape, placing the viewer into the frenzied action with a combination of "Saving Private Ryan" you-are-there verisimilitude and intercut footage that visualizes the minutiae of critical events (such as what happens when a fighter jet gets shot down), similar to the techniques used by David O. Russell in "Three Kings" or Tsui Hark in "Time and Tide". By employing such a varied visual canvas, "Behind Enemy Lines" is a technically-stunning piece of work that readily conveys the nightmarish world that Burnett has been thrown into, with some of the highlight sequences being the downing of his F-18, his inadvertent discovery of a mass grave, a 'bullet-time' breakdown of the tripping of a minefield, and the invasion of a Bosnian Muslim stronghold by Serb forces.
As Burnett, Wilson brings an 'everyman' quality to the role, similar to how Bruce Willis was able to bring the larger-than-life exploits of John McClane in "Die Hard" down to the audience's level. He is complemented by Hackman, who plays a noble Navy veteran whose sense of decency and honor counts more than pandering to politics and adherence to protocol. Among the supporting roles, Vladimir Mashkov ("15 Minutes") is suitably sinister as a sniper on Burnett's tail, while de Almeida is a marked contrast to Hackman's Reigart, a political bureaucrat whose good intentions are sabotaged by his blind-following of procedure.
Eye candy and acting aside, it is also interesting how the story by brothers Jim and John Thomas (whose previous credits include "Mission to Mars") and script by David Veloz ("Natural Born Killers") and Zak Penn ("Last Action Hero") inject some of the political realities of the Bosnian conflict into what could have otherwise been a bland Hollywood production. As in the film, Western powers (including the European Union, the United Nations, NATO, and the United States) preferred a non-interventionist approach in dealing with Bosnian conflict. Even though the aggressor in the conflict was Slobodan Milosevic's regime, diplomatic efforts made the Serbs an equal partner in the peace process, and essentially gave Milosevic a veto power over all peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts.
For example, in the 'safe areas' that were established by the United Nations for Bosnian Muslims, Serb forces would pound these enclaves with artillery, yet blame the attacks on renegade Serb paramilitaries not directly under their control, or even the Muslims, as part of a conspiracy to paint the Serbs in a bad light. In addition, because the mandate of the United Nations was 'peacekeeping' and not 'peace enforcement', peacekeepers were not allowed to return fire unless they were directly fired upon-- thus hostile actions by the Serbs were focused on the civilians in the enclave, preventing the peacekeepers from doing anything, other than to treat the wounded and count the dead. Furthermore, if the peacekeepers did return fire, the Serbs accused the United Nations of 'taking sides', and exacted punishment by cutting off the peacekeepers' supply lines, halting shipments of humanitarian relief, or even taking peacekeepers hostage. And in order to reopen the flow of aid in such a situation, the Serbs would sometimes negotiate for concessions, such as a percentage of the humanitarian supplies, which led to the absurd situation of the United Nations feeding the very army that was laying siege to its 'safe areas'. Unfortunately, it would not be until the fall of Srebenica in the summer of 1995, where Dutch peacekeepers helplessly watched the carting off and execution of thousands of Muslim men, that the Western powers finally found the resolve to no longer sit on the sidelines.
Thus, it is of little surprise that in "Behind Enemy Lines", Burnett finds his welcome by Bosnian Muslims in the fictional town of Hac to be less than hospitable, given the ineffectual efforts of his government and its allies in stopping the Serb incursions. 'Being an American' meant little during this time of the Bosnian War, as all the Western powers had offered to the Bosnians since the start of the conflict in 1992 were empty promises. Cynicism over the inept peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations even led Bosnians to dub UN peacekeepers 'SERBPROFOR', a play on UNPROFOR that emphasized how it appeared that the United Nations was more interested in appeasing Milosevic than protecting the civilians he was trampling on. And true to how the Clinton administration wished to avoid being drawn into a Vietnam-like quagmire in the Balkans, Burnett ends up abandoning the Bosnian Muslims to reach his rendezvous point (though this is softened by Burnett retrieving the photographic evidence of the mass graves).
While Capt. Scott O'Grady's six-day ordeal was probably never as over-the-top as what is portrayed here, "Behind Enemy Lines" still manages to be an effective action-thriller packed with entertaining eye candy, likable characters, and a story that hooks you in quickly. And though the film suffers from some regrettable lapses in logic and well-worn clichés, it is admirable how the script of such a Hollywood crowd-pleaser has tried to work in the complexities of the Bosnian War, a bloody conflict that ultimately spurred the West to take a stronger stance against the tyranny of the Milosevic regime, which came into play during the conflict in Kosovo in 1999.