More Than the Heat of Battle
“Black Hawk Down” is more than simply, as the opening title says, “Based on an Actual Event.” As much as a movie ever has, it puts you completely inside that event, brilliantly taking you where most people, even those who were actually there, wouldn’t want to be.
For “realism” is a mild word for the way director Ridley Scott sweepingly re-creates 1993’s fierce 15-hour battle between besieged U.S. troops and Somali fighters on the streets of Mogadishu in which 18 Americans were killed and 73 badly injured, the biggest totals since Vietnam. His is a triumph of pure filmmaking, a pitiless, unrelenting, no-excuses war movie so thoroughly convincing it’s frequently difficult to believe it is a staged re-creation. “Black Hawk Down” can be tough to sit through, but the fluidity and skill involved are so impressive it’s an exhilarating experience as well.
Scott’s film is based on and takes its spirit from Mark Bowden’s fiendishly detailed, un-put-downable nonfiction book of the same name. Cinematic in its vividness and narrative drive, Bowden’s work was embraced by military and civilian readers for its ability to penetrate the psychological states of its fighters as they struggled to survive in a locale as strange and dislocating to them as the canals of Mars.
To make this kind of a film, to persuasively re-create other worlds, has been Scott’s strength as a director from his 1978 “The Duellists” debut through “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and last year’s Oscar-winning “Gladiator.” Few directors have Scott’s exceptional visual sense, his decades of experience and his ability to orchestrate large-scale action, all of which are critical to “Black Hawk’s” success. As faithfully adapted from Bowden’s book by Ken Nolan, “Black Hawk” also plays to Scott’s strength by keeping dialogue to a minimum. It’s a cleanly told story, with a noticeable absence of movie frippery, a narrative whose stalwart matter-of-factness allows it to respect the professionalism of the combatants while being unflinching about mistakes made.
“It seemed to me that the film had to be an anatomy of the military process,” is how the director describes things. “That’s why there’s no fat in the picture.”
Though the result is much closer to “Battle of Algiers” than “Pearl Harbor,” this film is also an unlikely triumph for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose usual M.O. is so different that “Black Hawk” for the most part seems an anti-Bruckheimer film. Yet the producer understood what was called for here, and he put his extensive experience to use in getting the project what it needed, including cajoling the Army into providing Rangers and Black Hawk helicopters and persuading the king of Morocco, where the film was shot, to allow these troops onto his soil.
The usual device of type on screen briefly sets up “Black Hawk’s” back story. Famine, starvation and brutal clan warfare had combined to bring a U.N. peacekeeping mission to Somalia, but the country’s top warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, is impervious to its blandishments. To put pressure on Aidid, the U.S. military, here personified by Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison (Sam Shepard at his laconic best), decided to kidnap the people closest to him. On Oct. 3, 1993, a raid was set to extract the warlord’s top lieutenants from an area called Bakara Market. “It’s an entirely hostile district,” the general tells his men, adding, in what proved to be very much of an understatement, “don’t underestimate their capabilities.”
Going in was a combination of the Army’s top units, the Rangers and the Delta Force, troops that turned out to be rivals. Though very much of an elite group themselves, the Rangers were younger and less experienced than the intimidating “D-boys,” who wore their hair long, taped their blood type to their boots before going into combat and in general made their own rules.
It’s a mark of the kind of 40-speaking-part ensemble film “Black Hawk Down” is that though there are several recognizable faces--Josh Hartnett as an idealist, Ewan McGregor as a desk jockey eager for combat, Tom Sizemore as the leader of a vehicle convoy, “Chopper’s” Eric Bana and William Fichtner as Delta aces, “The Patriot” villain Jason Isaacs as a Ranger captain--no one person stands out from the excellent group. Also, though the book provided extensive back stories for many individuals, the film wisely does without them. There wouldn’t be room and, in the context here, they’re not necessary.
The operation, scheduled for an hour or less, starts to unravel almost immediately. An accident leads to delays that allow the Somali fighters to organize and attack. Suddenly, the American troops are hip-deep in a nightmare in which a large, well-armed army camouflaged in street clothes materializes out of nowhere and envelops everyone in what Bowden says veterans call “the fog of war.” Making things even more chaotic is the Ranger determination, stated in a creed they take seriously, never to “leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.”
Once the fighting begins, it’s difficult to tell the soldiers apart, which is why Scott broke with actuality and mandated names on Ranger helmets. (The D-boys are identifiable by the small black helmets they wear.) But the scene and not the individual is the focus here, and as edited by “JFK” Oscar winner Pietro Scalia and shot by Slawomir Idziak, the confusion seems part of the point. Idziak, best known for working with Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, seems an unlikely choice here, but using an average of six to eight cameras for each setup, he does a mind-bending job counterfeiting reality.
Though it is undeniably brutal, with several unnervingly bloody sequences, the violence in “Black Hawk Down” is the opposite of exploitative. And the film also takes time to at least nod toward some more complex questions, from exploring whether we should have been in Somalia in the first place to examining the complicated nature of what is conventionally described as heroism.
With its delineation of how well American troops did under killingly adverse conditions, “Black Hawk Down” shows why the military elements involved in the battle consider it a victory. Yet, paradoxically, the tone of this film is anything but triumphal. The sadness of so many deaths, including an estimated 500 Somalis, that seem so pointless is strongly felt.
A line from Plato that opens the film is especially haunting by the close. “Only the dead,” he wrote, “have seen the end of war.”
MPAA rating: R, for intense realistic graphic war violence and language. Times guidelines: Some horrifying moments and unrelenting intensity, but the violence is never exploitative.
‘Black Hawk Down’
Josh Hartnett...Sgt. Matt Eversmann
Ewan McGregor...Spec. Grimes
Tom Sizemore...Lt. Col. Danny McKnight
Eric Bana...Sgt. “Hoot” Gibson
William Fichtner...Sgt. Jeff Sanderson
Sam Shepard...Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison
A Revolution Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer Films presentation, in association with Scott Free Productions, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Ridley Scott. Producers Jerry Bruckheimer, Ridley Scott. Executive producers Simon West, Mike Stenson, Chad Oman, Branko Lustig. Screenplay Ken Nolan, based on the book by Mark Bowden. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Editor Pietro Scalia. Costumes Sammy Howarth-Sheldon, David Murphy. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Arthur Max. Art directors Pier Luigi Basile, Marco Trentini, Gianni Giovagnoni, Ivica Husnjak, Keith Pain, Cliff Robinson. Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes.
In limited release.