War Torn Celluloid
Black Hawk Down
Ridley Scott, USA, 2001
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
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
chronicling Bowden's reporting on the story, well worth checking out for
those seeking a more detailed perspective on the conflict.
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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