Black Hawk Down
review by KJ Doughton, 18 January 2002

Like Luke Skywalker dive-bombing his star-cruiser into one of the Death Star’s narrow crevices, the four starring helicopters in Black Hawk Down plunge between buildings and into the urban valleys of Mogadishu, Somalia. Just as the rebel alliance in Star Wars came to rid "a galaxy far, far, away" from the tyranny of Darth Vader, the Delta pilots helming these shark-shaped, aerial war crafts are closing in on Mohamed Farrah Aidid, a brutal Somalian dictator. Meanwhile, instead of droids, light sabers, and blasters, the military might that stormed Somalia in the October of 1993 to extract Aidid and allow the country’s starving citizens access to food relief supplies carried night vision goggles, portable rocket launchers, and bullets. Lots of bullets.

With all the similarities between Star Wars’ futuristic civil warring and Black Hawk Down’s contemporary, fact-based combat, why does the former feel so upbeat while the latter leaves one in a state of dizzy, disorienting fatigue? Maybe it’s because George Lucas’ vision didn’t include a burned, bloody canvas of severed hands, arterial spray, and bodies torn in two. Indeed, while both movies employ state of the art action and gadgetry, Star Wars still provides a feel-good, escapist fantasy. With Black Hawk down, there is no escape. This is war served up as real as it gets.

Black Hawk Down is so unrelenting in its vicarious tour of battlefield hell that after awhile, we’re acclimated to the sight of a dozen Somali bodies cluttering the backdrop of any given scene. Death becomes the rule, not the exception. The sight of an elderly man stumbling through the streets with a slain youth in his arms becomes just another piece of scenery. Eventually, the film’s shoot ‘em up action loses its power to excite, to stir, or to even hold our interest. Which is the point entirely. As an Aidid follower explains to a captured U.S. soldier, "You Americans can go home to your interesting lives when this is over. But this is our lives."

Black Hawk Down’s numbing combat is preceded by some explanatory captions, superimposed over images of skeletal Somalis wandering the country’s desert landscape while a harsh sun pounds down on them. Those that can walk are staggering like zombies while others, robbed of even minimal sustenance, are lying supine on the sand, like so much wasted human driftwood. It’s April 1993, and 30,000 of the East African country’s inhabitants have starved to death. A United Nations peacekeeping mission has been deployed to restore access to Red Cross food distribution centers, which are being hoarded by Aidid’s armies. American military brass plan to thwart the warlord’s bullying abuse of power by kidnapping two of his high-ranking lieutenants in an "extraction raid." The mission is perceived as a quick, easy, "in-out" procedure, involving copters, Humvees, and 160 soldiers.

Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Bladerunner, Gladiator), a master at conveying exotic times and places through meticulous detail and epic set-pieces, begins the film by walking us through one of Mogadishu’s busy downtown marketplaces, where ammunition and bayonets are sold alongside fish and bananas. Clearly, artillery is as common a commodity as toiletries or produce for the average battle-worn Somalian out for a little weekend shopping. Abruptly, Scott positions us inside a military compound, where Major General Garrison (Sam Shepard) interrogates an Aidid-linked gun supplier held hostage. Nearby, young Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers scope out the baby-blue surf of the African coastline in a symmetrical line of helicopters, primed to kick ass when the time is right. Meanwhile, they’ll be happy to shoot wild boar and barbecue the tasty beasts at a beachfront cookout.

One can sense a thick rivalry settling in during such gatherings, as when Ranger Captain Mike Steele (Jason Isaacs) reprimands a cocky, younger soldier under his command. "I could have you cleaning latrines with your tongue ‘til you don’t know the difference between sh*t and french fries," he warns. Meanwhile, we meet other Army Rangers, like the impatient Grimes (Ewan McGregor), whose ability to type has put him behind a desk instead of a gun. The most action he’s seen involves brewing the morning coffee at an Army administration office. There’s also Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), an idealist who sympathizes with the Somalis (dubbed "skinnies" by the American fighters). "These people have no jobs, no education, no food, and no future," he observes of Mogadishu’s citizens. "We’re here to help, or watch the city destroy itself on CNN."

When his superior officer is shipped home following a sudden epileptic seizure, Eversmann is put in charge of his band of fighting men. He’s up for the job, reassuring the warriors on his team that they’ll ace the mission. "We’re not some sorry-assed ROTC," he reminds them. "We’re elite."

While the film leaves it up to the viewer to sift through its labyrinthine, congested web of key players and military logistics, Black Hawk Down sets up the soldiers’ assignment with a fascinating patchwork of bird’s eye views. An insider below them, helming a vehicle that’s tracked by overhead helicopters, weaves through Mogadishu’s grimy, dust-caked alleys towards the enemy’s lair. We watch the driver emerge and pop the car’s hood. It appears that the radiator has burst, with steam billowing from beneath, but the image is actually a signal to the airborne snoops above that they’ve arrived at their target.

Suddenly, the helicopters are descending on the city block, soldiers are being deployed via drop ropes, and Aidid’s honchos are being rounded up for capture. A steely-eyed General Garrison observes the mission continue like clockwork, from glowing command center monitors.

However, the tide turns unexpectedly, as rooftop militia armed with portable rocket-launchers flood the scene, their missiles hissing towards the Black Hawks with tails of wispy, gray smoke. Within seconds, all hell breaks loose, a soldier toppling from his rope with a backbreaking thud, while hot lead cuts into whooshing rotor blades. Soon, copters are down, and American troops are exchanging skin-searing gunfire in an orgy of bloodletting that Sam Peckinpah could only dream of. Lacking the comic whimsy of Chinese gangster cinema or the respites provided by Steven Spielberg’s similarly savage Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down becomes one long, nasty, sustained visit to the trenches of hell.

In direct contrast to his Gladiator, in which everything hinged on the fate of one looming character, Scott has taken a completely different approach with Black Hawk Down, scattering a handful of heroes all over the map. There’s no center to this unsparing universe, and the effect is one of confusion and disarray. Helicopter pilots navigate ground vehicles to crash sites, unaware that key thoroughfares are blocked from access below. Rangers unknowingly shoot at each other. Pilots’ bodies are torn from fallen aircraft and desecrated by Somali militia. It’s an ugly scene.

During one nearly unwatchable incident , a desperate pilot trapped inside his downed copter empties clip after clip of bullets into the never-ending waves of Somali soldiers running towards him. As bodies sprint forward and then collapse under the raze of ballistic firepower, the loss of life is obscene.

The fact that the carnage eventually becomes matter-of-fact is Scott’s biggest triumph. Such sustained violence might not carry the emotional whirlwind that more dynamically paced films can offer, but it does make for the most realistic approach to this historical incident, which raged for over fourteen hours. Black Hawk Down is unprecedented in conveying the numbing sense of being jaded to combat, whether one is a foreign soldier on a drawn-out peacekeeping mission, or a resident civilian who has come to see such unending war as an everyday fact of life.

The movie is also made memorable by the chiseled, rugged faces worn by its capable cast members. Eric Bana (who starred as the outspoken killer in Australia’s recent cult hit, Chopper), playing a seasoned Delta operator who has seen war before and doesn’t try to make sense of it, is all coiled, quiet intensity behind rose-tinted shades. William Fichtner (Armageddon, Heat), appearing as another savvy pilot, has the timid, seen-it-all eyes of a tired raccoon. Other familiar mugs pop up, including those of Jeremy Piven (Serendipity), and military movie favorite Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor).

Black Hawk Down is a major redemption for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who subjected the public to last year’s celluloid atrocity Pearl Harbor and regularly backs films with little substance to match their explosion-heavy window dressing. Such Bruckheimer-helmed hits as The Rock, Gone in Sixty Seconds, and Coyote Ugly might have opened big, but they’ve since evaporated into forgotten pop-culture pap. Black Hawk Down, boasting the most authentic depiction of contemporary warfare ever filmed, belongs in a time capsule. It’s a classic.

Directed by:
Ridley Scott

Josh Hartnett
Ewan McGregor
Sam Shepard
Eric Bana
Tom Sizemore
William Fichtner

Written by:
Ken Nolan

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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