Gene Hackman is an Air Force officer on the ground, the victim of a "downed" plane over a "hot" zone in Vietnam. And he's such a big-wig, with so many military secrets the enemy would like to learn, his superiors are in no small hurry to rescue him before he's captured.

Danny Glover is the pilot in the air, flying a small spotter plane and keeping contact with Hackman via walkie-talkie, both to keep up Hackman's spirits and to keep his location pin-pointed for rescue choppers once he gets to a secure area.That's the premise of "Bat 21," titled after Hackman's code name, and a pre-credits statement tells us this is a true story. In a way it's hard to believe that the actual events could have had so many moments of cinematic suspense: Just when he's about to be saved, something happens to abort the rescue attempt - more than once.

But truth is stranger than fiction, they say, and "Bat 21" is an exciting thriller about survival. And it also manages to say something about the victims of war, and how distance makes the difference to the soldier.

The latter occurs as Hackman's character, who notes he has always made his "hits" from so far up in the air he's never had to see or think about the individuals who are killed or wounded.

But on the ground now he sees an entire village, with women and children in residence, strafed by American bomber jets - and he witnesses first-hand the suffering faces of those who've been hit. And at one point he finds himself in hand-to-hand combat with a farmer, having to face the farmer's family afterward.

Likewise, Glover is excellent.

"Bat 21," rated R for violence and profanity, is based on the memoirs of Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton. But the film is no less suspenseful for our knowledge that Hackman will indeed be saved. (One complaint: After a tag tells us what Hambleton is doing these days, it would have been nice to know what happened to the Glover character too.)