Black Hawk Down

Rated: R
Stars: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, Sam Shepard
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Ken Nolan and Steven Zaillian; based on the book of the same title by Mark Bowden

This is a film that tells of American military leadership arrogance coupled with enormous stupidity. If you’re an American watching Black Hawk Down and can get past that little kernel of truth, hallelujah. Because the film provides more irritation than information or entertainment for having its basis in reality – the 1993 debacle in Somalia where two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and 19 US servicemen and 1,000 Somalis lost their lives.

It was on Oct. 3, 1993, that elite Army Rangers and Army Delta Force, sporting cocky self-assurance, were sent on a raid in Mogadishu, Somalia to capture two deputies of the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Although the mission, which was ultimately successful for its initial goal, was conceived as a quick surgical extraction, it turned into a monstrously messy 15-hour gun battle between US forces and Somali militiamen.

US Generals knew their men were going into an extremely hostile area of the city, a marketplace where more arms and ammo were sold than food. Yet they still underestimated the enemy’s number, armaments and determination. US servicemen left camp without proper supplies because they expected to be back in an hour. Some took no water and one scene shows a soldier actually removing back protection from his flack jacket. Time and time again their motto: “leave no man behind” is echoed by grunt and general alike. It was taken to the extreme when soldiers, keeping true to their motto, repeatedly risked the living in order to “protect” the dead. It’s hard to watch because you’re sitting there thinking they’re all idiots.

As a cinematic event, the film is technically proficient with superb editing, effects and music. It’s also a true ensemble piece. Hardly one actor stands out above the rest. The characters are mostly interchangeable as gung-ho grunts, with the exception of a few, and yes, all the actors do a decent job. No problem there. It’s the story elements that I take exception to – based on reality or not.

Director Ridley Scott was quoted as saying “I don’t want to give the audience any answers.” I want them to go away and think, `This isn’t a movie movie.’ It’s as near to the edge of a documentary as I could make it.” The movie’s been hailed for its lack of sentimentality, by concentrating on the soldiers inside battle and not on them discussing family or home. Apparently the book by Mark Bowden played it the same way and Ridley Scott pared that down even more. Yet, Scott has admitted that he took certain liberties such as changing names per military request and even putting names on the soldiers’ helmets (to differentiate characters), something which the military does not do. He also tinkered with the number of soldiers presented in a scene in which they guard the first downed chopper: about 100 in reality versus his dozen (if that). Put succinctly, what you see on screen is mostly one really long battle with a few scenes of a general barking stupid orders. Perhaps Scott should have gone all the way and really made it a documentary. At least then we might understand the reasons behind the events and men’s actions and why even Somali women and children thought to take up arms against the Americans. Without that understanding, all that’s left for the audience to embrace is anger and certainly grief for the dead.

Lotta says: Black Hawk Down is not the great war movie of the new millenium. Sam Shepard as General William Garrison scowls, seethes, sneers and chews gum endlessly as he shows displeasure over events he helped create; endless close-ups of him make you want to put him in the crosshairs. But I especially liked Eric Bana, the Australian actor, who plays a Delta Force sergeant named Hoot; he really doesn’t have to say too much, it’s all in his eyes. Tom Sizemore worked well showing the weariness and wariness of a soldier who’s been around the camp a few times. And I liked Ron Eldard as Durant, a pilot who gets captured and held hostage. Caution: Extreme gore and violence.

Reviewed 1/12/02 – a limited Dec. 2001 release for Oscar consideration.