If Memorial Day is about appreciating the sacrifices that U.S. soldiers have made, watching a young John McCain being tortured and beaten is an appropriate if not especially pleasant way to mark the occasion. A&E’s earnest adaptation of the Arizona senator’s story isn’t much for depth or nuance, but it does provide a stark, by-the-numbers account of the horrors POWs endured in Vietnam, which prove only slightly more unappetizing than the Navy hazing McCain experienced as the son of an admiral.
Shot down in the opening sequence, McCain (Shawn Hatosy) suffers a shattered leg and gets stabbed with a bayonet for good measure. He’s soon transported to prison at the “Hanoi Hilton,” where the commandant (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) seeks to exploit his lineage by extracting a “confession” regarding his crimes. Asked to divulge the identities of those in his unit, he recites the names of the Green Bay Packers.
Offered the chance to leave early, McCain declines, adhering to the military code stating that POWs must be released in the order captured. The refusal earns him more beatings, as he struggles to maintain his grip by discussing baseball with a fellow prisoner (Joe Chrest) through their common wall.
To escape the movie’s narrative confinement, meanwhile, McCain’s life before captivity unfolds through a series of nondescript flashbacks, as he receives counsel from his stern dad (Scott Glenn); woos his first wife (Erin Cottrell); and endures abuse from his Naval Academy superiors, which involves a lot of push-ups and running in inclement weather.
The only tension, such as it is, involves whether he will ultimately break under extended torture and how his father will react to him giving his captors a statement that’s used for propaganda purposes. After a 5½-year ordeal it’s hard to imagine anyone doing much but saluting and hugging him, but the story has to conclude somewhere.
Director Peter Markle takes advantage of a slightly desiccated look to capture the dankness of the prison conditions, and the period songs go a long way toward setting the mood. Performances are generally solid, with the presence of Tagawa and Glenn adding weight in roles they have both played several times before.
As biographies go, however, the script employs a decidedly narrow lens while focusing on a well-documented window, providing little new insight into the war or a figure as public as McCain. Perhaps the best that can be said is that like the young pilot, the filmmakers can go home with their dignity intact.