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War Torn Celluloid


Black Hawk Down

Ridley Scott, USA, 2001

Rating: 3.0



Posted: January 20, 2002

By Laurence Station

In April 1992, the United Nations established peacekeeping operations in Somalia to feed a starving nation that had been decimated by inter-clan warfare. Somali warlords, who knew the only way to maintain power was to horde the supplies, regularly intercepted food shipments, thus diminishing the overall impact of the U.N. Matters ultimately came to a head in the country's capital city of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993, with a joint Army Rangers-Delta Force-led mission to abduct several top lieutenants of subclan warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

The mission, supposed to take roughly an hour, degenerated into a 15-hour shootout between 120 American soldiers and several thousand Somali irregulars and clan militia. When the smoke cleared the following morning, 18 U.S. soldiers lay dead, with 73 more wounded. Five hundred-odd Somalis died in the conflict as well, with at least 1,000 injured.

Based on author Mark Bowden's exhaustive book (collecting and expanding on his articles from the Philadelphia Inquirer), Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down tackles a messy subject and attempts to condense its core elements into a relentlessly jarring, two-and-a-half-hour street-level combat bio-pic.

The results, while visually striking, are decidedly mixed, with an evenhanded (if somewhat ambiguous) stab at political justification undermined by moralistic fence-straddling. The filmmakers faced innumerable options regarding how to tackle the compelling and tragic storyline. Ultimately, and none too surprisingly, the most bankable version was chosen: Maximize the action and avoid taking a definite stance on why American troops were ordered to carry out a kidnapping operation a) in broad daylight and b) within the very heart of the enemy controlled sector of the city. Allusions to political pressure from Washington to "get results" fail to justify the strike, which, if carried out at all, should have taken place in a less hostile area, and, if possible, under cover of darkness.

After a brief setup, Scott gets right to the action, as rocket-propelled grenades down the first of two Black Hawk helicopters. The rest of the film then focuses on rescuing survivors from the fallen aircraft and collecting the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers. "Leave no man behind" becomes the film's mantra, echoed early on by Major General Garrison (a steady Sam Shepard), and reinforced throughout by the heroic/reckless actions of the men battling the Somalis block by block in an effort to reach the respective crash sites.

The two most disturbing and memorable images from the Mogadishu conflict were the dragging of Master Sgt. Gary Gordon's body through the streets of the city and the battered visage of captured Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant. Scott shows Gordon's fall defending the fallen helicopter piloted by Durant and Durant's subsequent capture at the hands of the militia. But not showing the dragging of the body is near inexplicable in its absence of logic, especially given the film's level of carnage and its otherwise punishingly realistic tone.

As for Durant, his tale could easily have been the main focus of the film: Durant became a pawn in a ransom-driven power play by Aidid's faction, and his experience would have allowed for a deeper explanation of the Somali civil war and the reasons, colonial and otherwise, that led to its germination.

Instead, despite a solid ensemble cast, the real star of Black Hawk Down is the action. There are some standout performances, notably those of Eric Bana (Delta Sgt. First Class "Hoot" Gibson) and William Fichtner (Delta Sgt. First Class Jeff Sanderson). But the film ultimately trivializes individuality for the sake of explosions and tight shots on critically wounded body parts. As Scott jumps from one cluster of straight-laced Rangers to gung-ho Deltas, he refuses to allow the picture to focus on any one personality. Unfortunately, the audience becomes so benumbed by the endless carnage that any emotional connection to the individual players is reduced to an insulting inconsequentiality.

On the technical front, at least, the film fares much better. Slawomir Idziak's cinematography is reliable and, considering the circumstances, never too confusing, while Pietro Scalia's editing is tight and complimentary to the demands of the hyperkinetic narrative. Rabat, Morocco stands in for Mogadishu, and has the appropriate dusty, post-Colonial look.

Clearly, Hollywood compromises torpedoed what should have been a fascinating exploration of America's lengthiest ground combat since Vietnam. Black Hawk Down is undone by its lack of commitment to the human story and unwillingness to take a stand on what went wrong during the operation. Those looking for clarity regarding the events should read the book. If you're just looking for an entertaining, ultra-violent film that doesn't have much to say, however, this fits the bill to a T.

The Bigger Picture
The Philadelphia Inquirer has an excellent website chronicling Bowden's reporting on the story, well worth checking out for those seeking a more detailed perspective on the conflict.
Hulking Out
Australian actor Eric Bana's performance in Black Hawk Down so impressed director Ang Lee that he cast the actor for the lead in his 2003 film version of The Hulk.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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