In 1972, Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton (Gene Hackman) was working in Vietnam, when he could tear himself away from the golf course that was, so when he was late for a meeting his commanding officer was none too impressed, especially considering his reasons. Therefore when Hambleton piped up with an idea of sending out a surveillance plane to assist in the next bombing raid on Viet Cong targets, he found himself on that aircraft as the resident expert. And he also found himself parachuting out of it when it was hit by a missile...
Bat 21 was based on a true story, though as with many of the Hollywood versions of such tales you couldn't really take their productions as gospel, and if you wished to discover the real story you were better advised to read the book of Hambleton's escapade, or perhaps watch a television documentary. It was certainly true that he was shot down behind enemy lines, but plenty after that incident was fictionalised - for a start, it looked as if he was sent up in the plane out of sheer pique thanks to his commanding officer taking umbrage with him.
Although it was right enough that Hambleton spent most of his time behind a desk, so it was a miracle he managed to get out of his predicament alive. The character needed someone to talk to over his radio, so enter Danny Glover as a composite character of the pilots who kept track on his movements, codenamed Birddog just as Hambleton is known over the airwaves as Bat 21, and this was one of those movies where there was some novelty in the way the two leading men didn't meet until the very last scene, or just about at any rate. They did, however, keep in touch over the radio as the Lt. Colonel hides in the undergrowth until they can find a place to pick him up.
After all, it was very important he should be rescued seeing as how important his knowledge was; very strategic should the Viet Cong manage to capture him and pick his brains about the Americans' plans. It's such a good story that you may be keener than the filmmakers were to make a real war adventure out of the material, but there was a conscience put into play here as the regard they felt for the yarn elicited mixed feelings about the morailty of what they were up to. Not so much the helicopter crews who died trying to save Hambleton, but the bigger picture, as if this one man's story was a microcosm of the whole conflict.
It's a little more than this can bear, but Hackman if nothing else lent a humanity to his role, certainly less gung ho than his film of a few years previous Uncommon Valor, or the semi-hysterical Rambo: First Blood Part II for that matter. But such were the more ruminative Vietnam war movies of the eighties, of which Bat 21 was undoubtedly one of the lesser examples, despite its attempt to show both sides of the story as Hambleton deeply regrets killing a peasant in self-defence, yet also has no qualms about shooting dead a nasty Viet Cong soldier who forces one of the captured pilots onto a land mine to get him to talk. Yet somehow these moves towards depth don't quite ring true, not when the original account was so embellished and streamlined for mass consumption, so no matter how much conviction the two leads brought, this ended up as far less distinctive than it could have been. Golf did indeed play a major factor in the rescue, however. Music by Christopher Young.