M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

 
Black Hawk Down recounts the 1993 invasion of Mogadishu, Somalia by U.S. special forces. Comprised of Army Rangers and the Marine’s Delta Force, these forces strove to extract warlord Muhammed Farah Aidid, who had been accused of depriving the Somali population of U.N. relief and thereby exacerbating that country’s already catastrophic famine, which had killed over 3000. When a tip revealed that Aidid was meeting with his top aides – in a section of Mogadishu so hostile that one officer called it "the Wild West" – a detachment of forces was sent into the heart of enemy territory in what many believed would be a fairly straightforward mission to bring Aidid into U.S. custody.

What ensued of course was anything but straightforward. Based on the best-selling book by journalist Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down recreates the logistical nightmare that followed the downing of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter by forces loyal to Aidid. Surrounded by mobs of heavily armed militia and civilians, the stranded U.S. forces alternate between caring for their wounded, radioing for help, and dodging the hail of bullets coming from every conceivable rooftop, alleyway, and corner. As portrayed by director Ridley Scott, Mogadishu is an outer circle of Hell. Winds blow, fires rage, and twisted hulks of metal and concrete litter the streets like corpses. The soldiers look convincingly scared as they attempt to deal with the chaos swirling around them. With all sorts of digital dirt and debris flying, not to mention several gruesome amputations and dismemberments, Black Hawk Down ratchets up the this-is-war immersion to new levels.

War is indeed ugly, but in Scott’s vision of things, it can also be picturesque. Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography captures a series of perfectly aligned Black Hawks as they make their way across a sunlit sky. On the ground, the actors, headed by pretty boy Josh Hartnett as Sgt. Eversmann, are shot in military-chic poses with dirt and fake blood arranged for maximum visual impact. The Somalis, needless to say, are portrayed less generously. Reduced to chanting jungle creatures (at one point the Guns ‘N Roses song "Welcome to the Jungle" plays on the soundtrack), they swarm like an army of insects intent on overrunning the opposition by their sheer number. White versus black soon becomes the dominant visual motif. The reduction of the enemy to a faceless mass is a bit of a necessary evil in war movies, particularly those told from the American perspective as this one is, but as each line of Somali fighters is mowed down, there’s a feeling that Scott is enjoying it a little too much. Incidentally, the movie’s biggest injustice is in relegating the sole black American soldier, Specialist Kurth (Gabriel Casseus), to a bit part, when according to several accounts, he figured quite prominently in the battle.

But mood is Scott’s priority here, not narrative and certainly not politics. As the battle becomes more intense, particularly when a second Black Hawk is shot down, the particulars of storytelling – who’s who and where each person is trying to go – become less and less clear. The streets of Mogadishu, a virtual rat’s nest of alleyways and dead ends, seem to swallow up the U.S. forces as they rush from the first crash site to the second. They quickly lose their way, and in the process, so do we. Faces blur, situations begin to echo each other, and at one point, it seems like the same pilot dies twice. Scott piles on the disorientation with a shovel. What he needed were tweezers. This was after all a surgical operation in the military sense of the phrase, and the telling of it needs as much precision, if not more, than the real thing. As it is, the editing by Pietro Scalia feels as if it were executed with a hack saw, and Hans Zimmer’s ubiquitous drum beats and Islamic wails are so loud that every scene feels like a climax.

After a while, we’re worn out. Scott’s more-is-more approach to filmmaking deadens our senses. Each scene tries to outdo the other, and the mounting voltage renders us numb. Scott’s skills as sensualist are clearly mismatched with the journalistic forthrightness of Ken Nolan’s screenplay. They are opposing forces, one pulling towards the ornamental, the other towards the functional. No where is this more evident than in the final stretch of the battle when Eversmann’s Rangers are forced to run alongside a U.N. convoy sent to rescue them because, they are told, there’s no more room in the trucks. Intended as a kind of ironic grace note to top it all off, the scene is instead conceived as a dreamscape of slo-mo running set against a purple landscape and a pulsating soundtrack. Though weakened by visual and aural overstatement, Nolan’s screenplay retains its essential simplicity in its reliance on military lingo and avoidance of glib banter and banal Americanisms. There’s no shameless flag waving here. No sermonizing or gung-ho summing-up. When Sam Shepard’s general, who oversees the operation from a coastal base, says that they will "leave no man behind," it’s perhaps the movie’s most emotionally direct moment. The rest of the large ensemble cast (which includes Ewan MacGregor, William Fichter, and Tom Sizemore) disappears convincingly into their respective roles.

As a Jerry Bruckheimer production, Black Hawk Down is curiously ambivalent about the military. Without any clear hero or resolution, war becomes a technical exercise devoid of context. And so too the movie. There’s nothing to take home to think about. Nothing lingers with us. In so studiously avoiding the "big picture," Black Hawk Down is equal to the sum of its parts, no more, no less.


[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Columbia Pictures (Sony.com)
Movie Web site: Black Hawk Down

 


 

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