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Article

'Behind Enemy Lines': Plight Of The Navigator

Behind the scenes of the Gene Hackman-Owen Wilson film, the first strike in Hollywood’s new war effort

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The first thing you have to understand is this line,” says our assigned ensign, leaning into the stiff Pacific breeze scouring the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Shielding his eyes as the sun peeks over the receding mainland, he points out a red-and-yellow-banded stripe that cuts a clean diagonal off the ship’s stern, some 50 yards away: ”This is the Foul Line. Cross it, and you die.” Muffled chuckles bubble up from his audience, an unregimented clutch of bleary-eyed grips, gaffers, production assistants, and one wind-buffeted journalist who’s still trying to figure out where ”the head” is. The officer regards us all with concerned amusement, the Navy-standard attitude for handling the grossly uninitiated. ”No, really,” he stresses. ”You will die. If the bird landing doesn’t clip you, the wire will.”

For most of the Hollywood landlubbers assembled, ”bird on a wire” means ”disastrous Mel Gibson-Goldie Hawn caper.” For anyone familiar with a flight deck, it means potential decapitation. The ”birds” in question are $40 million F-18s, the workhorses of today’s Navy, including the top-of-the-line F/A-18F fighter and attack jet. (Like Tom Cruise’s baby fat, those chunky, gas-guzzling F-14 Tomcats from Top Gun will soon be a distant memory.) For a week, pilots will be smacking them onto this deck at several hundred miles an hour, hoping their tailhooks connect with the retractable cable (”the wire”) that yanks them to a stop before they skid into the ocean. The Foul Line is the outer boundary of that cable when it’s snapped taut with the combined weight and engine thrust of the jet. We all take a step back.

Meanwhile, the ensign has moved on to new horrors: Step over another line, and the jet blast from launching F-18s will sweep you off the deck. Also: ”You can’t wear sneakers up here. The fuel will melt the rubber.”

”Why is there jet fuel on the deck?” asks a PA.

”The planes leak. What do you expect? They’re old.”

”So where can we stand?”

”Stand anywhere you like,” the ensign says amiably, ”as long as it’s not in the way.”

Filming a movie is challenge enough without worrying about jet blasts, melted soles, and beheadings. But filming a $40 million military adventure like Behind Enemy Lines—and trying to make it look like it cost twice that—is a real decathlon, involving a three-month tour of duty in the Slovak Republic (doubling for the Bosnian countryside) and now, in early February, five days off the coast of Southern California. What’s more, this is a working aircraft carrier currently conducting landing trials for fighter pilots, which means the crew can’t simply film wherever and whenever it wants. That’s an awful lot to throw at first-time feature director John Moore and a star better known for wry improvisations than raw war dramas.

Not that Owen Wilson seems to be having any trouble impressing the real sailors of the Carl Vinson. With every call of ”Cut,” the lean, blond 33-year-old actor, decked out in the dull green flight suit of a naval aviator, is mobbed by enlisted men and women who pour into the three-Wal-Marts-long hangar bay armed with pens, paper, and, in one case, a videotape of Anaconda. ”He signed it, ‘Your pal, Owen Wilson,”’ crows a chief petty officer, pad held triumphantly aloft as he emerges from the fray. ”My kids are just gonna s—!”