Black Hawk Down: Ridley Scott’s Visually Awesome Combat Film

Though visually awesome in its gritty, ultra-realistic portrait of men in combat, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down cannot completely overcome two major problems: Lack of coherent narrative and absence of emotionally engaging or distinguishable characters to anchor a story, be it simple or complex.

Admittedly, it was a nearly impossible task to accomplish for screenwriters Ken Nolan and Steve Zaillian, who adapted journalist Mark Bowden’s personal account of the 1993 failed military action in Somalia, in which 18 Americans died, and which basically says that war is one a messy, senseless act, particularly when it concerns a foreign site such as Mogadishu of which Americans soldiers knew next to nothing.

Playing his second consecutive military role (the first was in Pearl Harbor) this year, Josh Hartnett is nominally the film’s star, but the script falters in establishing him as a distinctive hero by separating him from the other soldiers. Clearly, Black Hawk Down is not the picture that will catapult the handsome and talented Hartnett into a major box-office draw, much to Columbia’s chagrin. The studio has high hopes for its nerve-wracking war movie, which should enjoy a strong opening weekend.

However, what producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Revolution’s top honcho, Joe Roth, underestimate is the lukewarm word-of-mouth that their movie will generate, due to its relentless, emotionally exhausting nature–for at least half of the film’s excessive running time (148 minutes), the viewers are placed in the midst of a chaotic, deafening warfare! That the film contains no home front or civilian scenes, and no female roles, presents further commercial problems.
Black Hawk Down the movie owes its entire existence to Spielberg’s 1998 masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan. The affinity between Spielberg’s work and new film is not accidental: Producer Lustig also supervised Schindler’s List, for which scripter Steven Zaillian won an Oscar. As shot by Janusz Kaminsky’s piercing camera, the first 23 minutes of Spielberg’s WWII epic presented the most revelatory battle ever recorded onscreen, a breathtakingly graphic portrayal of the violent combat at Omaha Beach on D Day.

As far as the war genre and conventions are concerned, Scott’s work pushes the envelope even farther, easily surpassing such recent conventional fare as Enemy Behind the Gates, in which the siege of Stalingrad was reduced to a two-character cat-and-mouse game, or even HBO’s acclaimed series, Band of Brothers. However, Black Hawk Down also shows the limits of visceral and sensorial cinema in the sense that, basically, Scott’s combat film is based on a thin premise, asking the audience to sit through a grueling experience without knowing much about the politics of this particular region. That vital information is conveyed by title cards in the beginning and end of the story further confirms the scribes’ muddled effort to construct individual characters, ones that are far more interesting and fully realized in Bowden’s well-researched book.

Less than a year after former President Clinton assumed office, he had to make a quick decision regarding Somalia, a country that like Vietnam decades earlier American intelligence knew little about. In October 1993, a band of elite American soldiers were sent to Mogadishu as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation. At first, the mission, which centered on abducting two top lieutenants of a Somali Warlord named Mohamed Farrah Aidid, sounded simple and manageable. There was no doubt that the effort was “well-intentioned” and even humanistic, for the U.S. saw the mission as an integral part of its strategy to quell the civil war and horrendous famine that was ravaging Somalia.

In the first reel, the scripters establish in broad strokes some basic characters, the most prominent of which is Staff Sgt. Matt Everyman (Hartnett), an idealistic young Ranger, very much in the manner of Tom Hanks’ hero in Saving Private Ryan. Almost positioned on the other pole of the spectrum is Ranger Spec. Grimes (McGregor), a likable desk jockey whose main job is as crack coffee brewer. Other fighters include Ranger Lt. Col. Danny McKnight (Sizemore), a tough, cool-under-fire soldier, as well as Sgt. First Class “Hoot” Gibson (Eric Bana), a Delta soldier who’s a legend even to his comrades in the elite Special Forces. We quickly learn that the Young Rangers and vet Delta Force soldiers fight side by side against overwhelming odds, though no tensions exist between the two units.

Once in Somalia, the U.S. troops became increasingly mired in incomprehensible, senseless and feudal politics of a region torn by centuries-long battles of one clan against the other. For the duration of 18 long and harrowing hours, the soldiers remained trapped and wounded in the most hostile district of Mogadishu, until a rescue convoy was mounted to retrieve them. Outnumbered and surrounded by an unknown, mass enemy, conflicts begin to flare within the group, dear friends and mates lose their lives, new alliances are formed–in short, the soldiers learn the true nature of war, heroism, and manhood.

Almost by necessity, the combat, considered by some experts as the US military’s single biggest firelight since Vietnam (which may change after the war in Afghanistan is over), is depicted onscreen as a step-by-step, minute-by-minute battle on the ground, in the air, and at the command center, headed by Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison (Shepard), a two-star commander of task Force Ranger, who observes the action from the distant Joint Operations Center.

Unlike Saving Private Ryan, in which the band was small and comprised of soldiers who were easily distinguishable, in terms of their physique, motivation, and personality, the cast of Black Hawk Down is larger and its men more anonymous and interchangeable. Since not much is known about each individual before he goes to combat, it’s hard to understand–and feel for–the transformation that he undergoes. Aspiring to be a combat chronicle at once epic and intimate, Black Hawk Down succeeds as the former but fails as the latter.

Much of the yarn is experienced through the eyes of Everyman, whose mettle is sorely tested when he is unexpectedly handed command of one of the four “chalks” assigned to secure the target building. Ranger Grimes also has some revelatory, if ironic experiences: His long-held desire for “adventure” is finally answered in the streets of Mogadishu, far away from the safety of his typewriter and desk. Moments of relief from the relentlessly bloody combat are offered by Maj. Gen. Garrison, who watches helplessly as two Black Hawks go down in flames (hence the title), and the mission takes on painfully unexpected dimensions.

In addition to narrative and dramatic issues, Black Hawk Down also faces political problems: How to portray heroically a mission that was ultimately a big fiasco: American soldiers died in a battle that many considered unnecessary and far from being well-planned. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack is likely to change US foreign policy, as well as our reaction to war movies, it’s indicative that two title cards were inserted at the end of the saga, one claiming that the US learned a lesson about its engagement in foreign conflicts, the other one stating that under certain conditions, the U.S. should still get involved in the politics of foreign territories.

With three back-to-back movies within the past 18 months, Gladiator, Hannibal, and now Black Hawk Down–each flaunting a different feel and look–the gifted British director Ridley Scott establishes himself as one of the most versatile filmmakers working today in mainstream Hollywood. Next to the stunning production design of his brother’s (Tony) film, Spy Game, it’s hard to think of another Hollywood movie this year, including A.I. and The Lord of the Rings that captures so specifically and vividly the milieu and logistics of a particular action. Indeed, shot in Sale, Morocco, Black Hawk Down achieves epic scale due to the prodigious work of Polish lenser Slawomir Idziak (who began his career with Kieslowski and also shot Gattaca and Proof of Life) and production designer Arthur Max.

In every single respect, Black Hawk Down represents a major leap forward for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, better known until now for such schlocky and popcorn actioners as Top Gun, The Rock, and Armageddon.