In 1984, the Naval Institute Press published its first novel – The Hunt for Red October. Due to the success of that book, it decided to wade in again two years later with Dean Koontz’s Flight of the Intruder. Koontz had spent nine years on active duty in the Navy which included two combat tours in Vietnam on board the USS Enterprise. He flew A-6 Intruders and accrued 305 carrier landings, including 100 at night. The Intruder was a bomber that was used for ground support, flak suppression, and general purpose targets. It was the Navy equivalent of the Air Force’s F-105. The Navy lost 84 during the war. 10 were shot down by surface to air missiles (SAMs) and 56 were lost to ground fire and anti-aircraft artillery. The last plane lost, to ground fire on a ground support mission, was piloted by Lt. C.M. Graf. He and his bombardier were rescued by helicopter. The Navy gave full cooperation for the film version of the book. Director John Milius (who wrote the first version of “Apocalypse Now”) was given access to naval facilities and allowed to film on the USS Independence. The Independence’s fire crew dealt with numerous small fires created by the lighting. Four A-6s modified to look like their 1972 versions were provided with their crews. In exchange for the cooperation, the Navy vetted the script and suggested minor accuracy changes and nixed a scene where the main character smoked marijuana. In general, the Navy was hands-off as it was hoping to replicate the recruiting boost it had gotten from “Top Gun”. That did not happen.
The movie opens with a title card that informs us that the A-6 was the Navy’s main medium attack bomber. It delivered its ordinance at tree-top level in any weather. It had no defensive weaponry. The movie opens in September, 1972. A lone Intruder piloted by Lt. “Cool Hand” Grafton (Brad Johnson) is on a night mission to bomb a suspected truck park. After wasting costly bombs to blow up some trees, the plane heads back to the carrier with a frustrated crew. Frustration turns to tragedy as a North Vietnamese farmer fires a once in a million shot at the Intruder and hits the bombardier “Morg”. Another good American lost to a useless target. This establishes the theme of the movie. The rules of engagement prevent men like Grafton from hitting worthwhile targets in Hanoi. Politicians are calling the shots and not allowing the aviators to win the war. Grafton’s gruff boss, Commander Campanelli (Danny Glover), sends him off to Subic Bay for some R&R and to get his mind off his best buddy’s death. He has a tryst with Callie (Rosanna Arquette) and meets his new bombardier “Tiger” Cole (Willem Defoe). After some more hairy missions and the loss of another mate, Grafton and Cole decide to hell with the ROEs. They will disobey orders and attack SAM City (a park where the missiles are lined up like the aircraft at Hickam Field on Dec. 7,1941) in the middle of Hanoi. It will probably mean court-martial, but it will sure feel good to get revenge.
“Flight of the Intruder” is a competent air combat movie, but it does not break any new ground. It has none of the flair of “Top Gun”, but it is also not silly like much of that movie. It is a half-hearted attempt to recreate the magic of that movie. Although it was big budget, it does not come off that way. The cast is fine, but Brad Johnson is no Tom Cruise. Willem Defoe and Danny Glover take acting honors in meaty roles whereas Johnson is bit stiff. The movie includes David Schwimmer’s acting debut, but he and the other supporting actors are not memorable. The soundtrack does not reach high altitude and the dialogue also stays on the ground. One curious diversion from the “Top Gun” playbook is the cursory romance between Grafton and Callie. Rosanna Arquette is miscast as Callie, but the romance is so brief that it makes no difference. The real star is the A-6, of course. It is a photogenic plane and considering its role and accomplishments in the war, it deserved this movie. The movie pares down the book’s numerous missions to five, but the five are nicely done and suspenseful. They also do a good job as a tutorial for SAM suppression, low level bombing, and rescue missions. Unfortunately, the special effects are not up to the plane. Hanoi is obviously a model and the overblown fireworks when SAM City is hit are embarrassing. In your face, Jane Fonda!
Milius is a noted hawk when it comes to Vietnam. He was upset when Coppola “adjusted” his “Apocalypse Now” script, turning it into a hippy opus. He meant for “Flight” to be anti-politicians rather than anti-war. Surprisingly, he does not hammer his theme that the rules of engagement prevented our fighting men from winning. It is clear from the movie that the war was not wrong, it was the way we fought it. That argument could be made, but it is not effectively propounded in a film that is so full of clichés. Hell, Milius even throws in the bar fight war movie fans have seen a million times. Grafton is the stereotypical rogue warrior who gets away with insubordination by succeeding. Cole is the man with a past who is allowed to redeem himself through self-sacrifice. A character dies after showing off his newborn. Nothing surprising happens in the movie, but this can be comforting if you just want to watch an old-fashioned aerial combat movie. Or if you have some nostalgia for “Top Gun”, “Bridges at Toko-Ri”, “The Blue Max”, etc.
*** SPOILER ALERT The following segment will compare the book’s plot to the movie.
The novel opens with the same mission that results in the death of Morg. The movie replicates the mission very accurately. From here, the movie cuts a lot from the book. The novel has a lot of missions and a nice variety of them. For instance, Jake has to fly a tanker on a dark and rainy night. In another, they bomb a MiG base. Most significantly in advancing Koontz’s theme is a mission where Jake drops bombs on a squad of Viet Cong hiding in the jungle! The war in a nutshell. The details of activities such as refueling, takeoffs, and landings are what you would expect from a veteran A-6 pilot. The missions Milius chose to depict are fairly close to the book, except the last one. The film wisely changes the rogue mission to the attack on SAM City. Although, the collateral explosions are silly, it is a cinematically fulfilling improvement over the book’s attack on the boring National Assembly building, which they don’t even hit! The aftermath is similar in the movie with the court-martial aborted by Nixon’s decision to start bombing Hanoi. The last mission in the book is not a redemptive ride to the rescue of Campanelli. Jake and Cole are on a flak suppression mission and Jake decides to continue to the target in spite of losing an engine and even comes around for a second approach after his bombs don’t drop. They bail out and Cole is badly wounded. A Skyraider pilot is shot down and it is he that calls in bombs on his position because he knows he’s a goner. Jake shoots several North Vietnamese soldiers to rescue Cole and a helicopter picks them up.
The movie changes several characters. Callie is not a pilot’s widow. She is hippieish and the romance takes up a substantial amount of the book. Koontz has them touring the city and talking a lot. She is a much more interesting character than the woman in the movie. On the other hand, the Cole of the book is not as interesting. He is given no back-story and is even more laconic. Most likely the role was tailored to Willem Defoe, which was wise. Campanelli is the same except that it was felt necessary in the movie to explain why a black man could have that last name. Fans of Lundeen in the book will be disappointed by his demotion. In the movie, the Phantom Shitter turns out to be the librarian so that Jake can blackmail him into helping with the rogue mission. And Jake fails flying the beast at the Tailhook Bar in the book. Lundeen succeeds. There is no bar fight, by the way.
In this case, the book is better than the movie. Koontz can be a bit tedious in his hammering at his theme that the men are dying over useless targets. I guess you can’t blame him for getting on his soapbox since he lived through the frustration. At least he doesn’t fulfill his wet dreams by having Jake and Cole altering the course of the war by blowing up the communist National Assembly building. He manages to hit every type of mission an A-6 might participate in. The missions are exciting. Jake is more likeable and although in the tradition of stereotypical hot shot pilots, flawed and not a superhero. He even has some PTSD problems that the movie completely omits. The romance with Callie is realistic and she is not presented as an anti-war balance to Jake. In spite of her, the book is still very much a manly tale.
BOOK = B
MOVIE = C