For a movie that tackled such an important part of America’s struggle with Vietnam, it is quite surprising at how few people have seen this movie. The Hanoi Hilton was released in 1987, right on the tail end of a decade that saw the release of several Vietnam movies. Perhaps the American people just had enough of the subject matter.
Either way, this film is definitely worth seeing, although I did not particularly care for the much of the acting.
This is the story of the Hoa Lo prison camp, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the inmates, and their treatment of American prisoners captured in Vietnam. It also brings up the amount of French prisoners also there, as that country was in a similar struggle as the United States before their war.
Suffering though disgusting conditions, and continuous brutal torture, this story focuses on Michael Moriarty, who is the SRO of the group. Every movie I have ever seen him in, he has such a calm demeanor, and that does not change here. At first I found it rather annoying, but by the time the film ended, I felt it worked well.
The first half of this movie is brutally slow, and several times I felt like getting up and shutting it off, but when it got about half way through, I am glad I kept it on.
There is one scene devoted entirely to talking about hockey, as Moriarty’s character was a hockey player back home. There is even a mention of going to see the Rangers at Madison Square Garden when they get out of prison. Later on, when the prisoners are allowed letters from home, Moriarty reads one saying that his favorite team, the Flyers, no longer play the National Anthem before games, but God Bless America.
This changed my whole outlook on the movie, because it gave the audience a chance to find out about the private lives of the soldiers.
That and the fact that Jeffrey Jones gives a great Christmas dinner sermon, telling the men how they must hang tough to survive, and citing biblical references of Isaac and Abraham. These two moments, that some may deem insignificant, changed the tide of the entire movie for me.
It is also noteworthy to mention the acting of Aki Aleong, who plays the camp’s commander. He does a great job in showing both sides; the ruthless and the honorable. It is sometimes hard to figure out whether he is being kind to prisoners on occasion because he genuinely feels sorry for them, or if he just wants them to break down further.
There is also one scene of dialogue that I feel is so important to mention, because it directly shows that Vietnam was not a war, but a conflict. When Moriarty is captured early on, whenever asked a question in interrogation, he just responds with his name, rank, and unit, because under the war-time rules of the Geneva Convention, that is all soldiers are required to disclose.
Aleong then tells him that because the United States never declared war on Vietnam, all captured prisoners are to be treated as criminals, and not prisoners of war, and therefore can receive much harsher treatment. Although it will anger the audience, the dialogue is correct, because the US never declared war for the entire decade they occupied North Vietnam.
This movie is highly effective in showing the torture suffered by captured Americans. It is not for the faint of heart because of several scenes showing this brutality. I will also assume that this is historically accurate because many prisoners that were detained there helped out the director, including Senator John McCain. My final rating for this movie will be 6 out of 10, and even with it’s flaws I can only hope that it will get more exposure.