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Critics shared some mixed feelings about the movie. Overall, the film received a 55% ("Rotten") rating on Rotten Tomatoes , based on 11 critic reviews. Rita Kempley of The Washington Post wrote, "[The film] 1969 , the directorial debut of Ernest Thompson, is an aimless drama, its purpose and promise lost in a thicket of false endings and a fog of nostalgia".  The New York Times ' Janet Maslin described how "Mr. [Bruce] Dern , unusually laconic here, is unexpectedly moving as the character who seems most confused by changing times.  Finally, Variety said, "Affecting memories and good intentions don't always add up to good screen stories, and such is the case in 1969 , one of the murkiest reflections on the Vietnam War era yet, notwithstanding good performances all around and bright packaging of Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Downey, Jr. in the leads." 
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 80% of critics gave the film positive reviews based upon a sample of 47, with an average score of 7 out of 10.  At Metacritic , which assigns a weighted average rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 73 based on 19 reviews.  Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle praised the film, " Breakdown use[s] old-fashioned ingenuity — plus a compelling star, a fast-paced mystery and a deadpan villain — to come up with a sizzler."  Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review, calling it "taut, skillful and surgically effective".  Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post criticized Russell for not conveying a desperate husband willing to fight for his missing wife, writing "He does a lot of running around while making desperate faces, but he never projects a sense of deep rage. He never gets dangerous. Thus the movie is shorn of its one primitive gratification: the image of the civilized man who finds the Peruvian commando inside himself and lays waste to louts who have underestimated him."