Black Hawk Down
Screenplay : Ken Nolan (based on the book by Mark Bowden)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Josh Hartnett (Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann), Ewan McGregor (Company Clerk John Grimes), Tom Sizemore (Lt. Col. Danny McKnight), Eric Bana (Sgt. 1st Class Norm "Hoot" Hooten), William Fichtner (Master Sgt. Paul Howe), Ewen Bremner (Specialist Shawn Nelson), Sam Shepard (Maj. Gen. William Garrison), Gabriel Casseus (Specialist Mike Kurth)
"The American public is rarely exposed to the realities of warfare. The Pentagon does not allow reporters to accompany soldiers directly into battle, a journalistic tradition that ended after Vietnam. What results is a sanitized picture of combat. The public knows only what the military chooses to portray, or what cameras are able to see from afar. Americans have little understanding of what awaits frightened young soldiers, or of their heroic and sometimes savage attempts to save themselves and their fellow soldiers."—Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, from his original newspaper series
Although a Hollywood movie, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down has as its sole purpose to "expose the realities of warfare." Loud, relentless, and full of hyperrealized images of smoke, bloodshed, and raining dirt, it is a harrowing descent into the middle of a modern battle. It's a raw war movie with little aim other than its obsessive urge to put you in the moment, to twist your stomach with the sensation of being caught in the crossfire with no place to go.
Based on the book by Mark Bowden, a reporter for the Phildelphia Inquirer, Black Hawk Down follows the events of October 3 and 4, 1993, when roughly 120 U.S. soldiers raided a building in the heavily populated city of Mogadishu in the civil-war-torn East African country of Somalia. The purpose of the raid was to capture several top lieutenants of the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, whose militia controlled much of the country and was using forced starvation as a weapon against the people. In this respect, the mission was a success: Many of Aidid's top-ranking men were captured. But, at the same time, it was a dismal failure in that what was meant to be a half-hour mission turned into an 18-hour battle that resulted in the loss of 19 American lives and 500 or more Somalis.
The mission was risky to begin with, taking place as it did in broad daylight in the most dangerous part of the city. And, although it started off well, after one U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, the mission devolved into an escalating spiral of dilemmas, with small pockets of U.S. soldiers stranded throughout the city and an armed mob of thousands of Somali militia fighters bearing down on them from all sides. It was enough of a military blunder that President Clinton pulled U.S. forces out of Somalia within days, and it still stands as a testament to the dangers of getting involved in "someone else's war."
But, this is the larger context of which Black Hawk Down is not particularly interested. The film opens with title cards that explain the desperate situation in Somalia, and there is dialogue among the military leaders, most notably Maj. Gen. William Garrison (Sam Shepard) as to why teams of U.S. Delta Force and Task Force Rangers were sent in on this mission. But, this is all just a necessary prelude to the film's real preoccupation, which is what happens to young men once they are trapped in the chaos of modern warfare. Its vision of the hell of war is undiluted by anything extraneous.
This is at once both the greatest strength and weakness of Black Hawk Down. While there is little in the way of initial character development—we get only the briefest sketches of several of the men before they are dropped into action, including Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), a true idealist who is in a leadership position for the first time, Company Clerk John Grimes (Ewan McGregor), whose specialties are typing and making coffee, and Lt. Col. Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore), whose intensity and dedication to both the men under his command and the mission is not enough to save it from disaster.
There is also little in the way of sentimentality or awkward narratives being shoehorned into the film. There is no time given to subplots or poetic reflections about the dualities of violence. Rather, Black Hawk Down is a pure war movie, whose focus is clear and concentrated throughout. There are a few moments when the screenplay by John Nolan uses character dialogue to spell out the film's theme—that, despite all the political reasons for warfare, in the end war is about desperate men trying to save each other's lives. In these moments, you can almost feel the cinematic machinery grind to a dead halt because this had already been so clearly portrayed in the action.
Unfortunately, the film's intensive focus on depicting the specifics of battle does not allow for much complexity, which ultimately reduces the Somalis to a mob of frightening dark-skinned faces (with a few leaders, including one who wears mirrored sunglasses, standing out). The us-versus-them mentality of too many war epics becomes the de facto dominant paradigm through which we view the violence. And, while so much of the bloodshed here is terrifying and unpleasant, but there are still random moments of Rambo-like excitement, such as when a couple of U.S. soldiers capture a Somali missile launcher and turn it against a pair of recognizable Somali militia soldiers. The fact that Scott allows a pause here before the missile is fired—he assures us that the Somalis see their own weapon turned against them to our satisfaction—is a break in the realism to include a Hollywood war convention. Thankfully, such moments are few and far between.
Viewed entirely at a technical level, Black Hawk Down is flawless—a tour de force of special effects in the service of verisimilitude. Using locations in Morocco to stand in for the ravaged streets of Mogadishu, director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Hannibal) and cinematographer Slavomir Idziak (Gattaca, Proof of Life) portray the violence of war in all its horrific fury. The visual nature of the film is immediately reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), which has become the most influential film in the depiction of war of the last several decades. Like Spielberg, Scott manages to work on two levels, conveying the utter chaos of being in the line of fire with low-angle and point-of-view shots that put you in the midst of the violence, while simultaneously maintaining a larger vantage point as to what is at stake at any particular moment.
The latter is accomplished primarily by constantly cutting back to Garrison and other officials as they watch the raid unfold on gray video monitors. Oddly enough, with all the visceral blood and gore that flies throughout the film, one of the most chilling images in the film is shot of a video monitor that shows a bird's eye view of one of the U.S. Black Hawk helicopters crashlanding on the street, the low-res, colorless image of its inevitable smashing into the ground accompanied by an eerie silence that reverberates in your head more than all the sound effects in the world.
Black Hawk Down works best as an evocation of both the heroism and the horrors of war. Once the firing begins about a half-hour into the film, it does not let up until close to two hours later. It assaults the viewer with a relentless barrage of violence that is wearisome, and you walk out of the theater dazed. It is exhilarating, but in a terrible way, and its repetitiveness is exhausting, but necessary. No movie can hope to truly recreate the experience of being in war, but Black Hawk Down musters all the capabilities of the cinematic medium to get us as close as the screen will allow, conveying the conflicted sense of both victory and defeat that must be a part of any military battle.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick