Black Hawk Down

Directed by Ridley Scott, with Tom Sizemore, Josh Harnett, Sam Sheppard, Ewan McGregor and Eric Bana, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and, Ridley Scott, screeplay by Ken Nolan, based on the book by Mark Bowden, cinematography: Slavomir Idziak, music by Hans Zimmer, color, 143 minutes, rated R, released 1/18/02

Hooo-agh!

Picture from DVD booklet

Still from DVD booklet

By James L. Leight

Black Hawk Down is Ridley Scott's masterful and gripping recreation of Mark Bowden's nonfiction bestseller of the same name.

The story recounts the terrible events of October 3rd, 1993, when roughly 100 elite U.S Rangers and Delta Force commandos raided a compound in Mogadishu, Somalia, to arrest several high-ranking lieutenants of Mohammed Farah Aidid. Aidid commanded a huge armed militia, and was the most powerful of the numerous Somali warlords. After Aidid began seizing international food shipments intended to feed the starving population and attacking U.N peacekeepers, the U.S Army Rangers and Delta Force were sent to Mogadishu to remove him and restore order.

Bowden, a staff reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote a detailed account of the Mogadishu raid in a 29-part series in 1997. A year later, the book - essentially a more detailed version of the Inquirer series - was published.

The film's opening titles briefly explain the background of the situation and shows a scene in which elite American soldiers in a helicopter witness armed militia under Aidid's command prevent the distribution of food to starving Somalians, whom the American soldiers call "skinnies." The movie then shows the Rangers during their "free time" during which they swagger with gung-ho spirits and bark "Hooo-agh!" at one another as their motto. The film moves quickly to the planning stage of the soon-to-be disastrous mission. One of the officers, Lt. Colonel Daniel McKnight (Tom Sizemore), is seen voicing his concerns regarding the mission plan, questioning its timing, location, and lack of air support for the troops on the ground. The Americans have some high-tech equipment but the kidnapping attack is regarded as a relatively simple and quick action into hostile territory where opposition from the the Somalis is expected. Some of the soldiers do not even take canteens and their night-vision goggles.

Once the attack starts, about a half-hour into the film, the pace of the film picks up dramatically.

From the instant the Rangers rope down from their choppers, they are battling hordes of armed Somali militia. The gunfights between the soldiers and militiamen are very realistic, sometimes gruesomely so. (As in Saving Private Ryan at least one soldier gets the lower half of his body blown away; the driver of one of the humvees is hit by a rocket that sticks out from his side.) Contrary to many Hollywood-ized war films, the "good guys" actually do have to stop and reload, their enemies do shoot back, and they do get shot. This is not a movie to watch casually, as some scenes are difficult to watch. The gore is not as unrelenting as in Saving Private Ryan, but the intensity of the fire fight is much more prolonged and screenwriter Ken Nolan does an excellent job of condensing the hellish, 15-hour gunfight into the film's 143 minutes. He also does a nice job of weaving in some background information on several of the characters. It does not go into too much depth, however, as the movie would run on for days.

Some criticize Black Hawk Down for not developing the characters enough, but to have done so would make the movie much, much longer and in fact the characters were developed just as much as was necessary. This is a movie about heroism, but the focus is not so much on specific individuals as it is about the harsh realities of combat. Small segments show soldiers talking about their families, and one scene showed a Delta operator making a drawing for his daughter. While the film did not incorporate the soldiers' private lives into the story, it portrayed the feeling of kinship between the soldiers superbly. It became very clear that all these soldiers could rely on was each other, and they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their comrades. The scene where Delta snipers Gary Gordon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Randy Shughart (Johnny Strong) volunteered to protect one of the downed pilots (Mike Durant, played by Ron Eldard) from hundreds of Somali militia captured this sentiment vividly, and it was unquestionably one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the entire movie. The Delta snipers would die and be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Much is made of "not leaving anyone behind," a very noble and honorable but difficult principle. This is expressed in the final minutes when Delta member Norm "Hoot" Hooten (Eric Bana) talks with Sgt. Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) about how people back home don't understand "why they do it": "It's about the guys next to you, and that's all it is."

Cinematographer Slavomir Idziak, using various lighting and camera techniques, gives the viewer a good sense of the "grittiness" of the situation as well. At many times, you feel as if you are on the ground with the soldiers, and the bullets and RPG's feel as if they are whizzing by your head. Several of the explosion sequences were very similar to those in Saving Private Ryan, where the falling dirt, rocks and debris appear to be "raining" down. Shots of soldiers scurrying from building to building seem almost "dusty," as if, somehow, the movie was filmed while the actual battle was taking place. The cinematography and editing are superb and one is able to understand the flow of the action even when the characters on-screen do not. The engagement quickly degenerated into catastrophic chaos.

The enormous budget of $90 million was instrumental in making the battle scenes believable, as several Black Hawk helicopters were available for use in scenes, not to mention the Royal Moroccan Army, whose troops played the roles of Somali militamen. Since Mogadishu was too dangerous a place to do the filming, the entire movie was shot in Rabat, Morocco. In the battle, by the way, two Black Hawk helicopters are downed.

What makes Black Hawk Down truly outstanding is that it does not contain any of the usual Hollywood dramatizations, stunts, or happy endings. There is no "Rambo" who single-handedly takes on thousands of men without so much as a hair out of place. There is no moralizing, no teary-eyed "can't we all just get along" speeches, and, thankfully, no trumped up soap-opera love story involving Hartnett (who is much better here than in Pearl Harbor), which would only serve to detract from the credibility and seriousness of the film.

The one element that particularly stands out in the film is that of realism. The film made it clear that there was a lack of communication between the soldiers on the ground and the commanders in the air and back at base. The convoy, which was necessary to evacuate the wounded and dead American troops, was sent in circles around the city for hours because directions could not be relayed to them quickly enough. It seemed that throughout the film General Garrison (Sam Shepard), the Ranger commander, could only sit idly by and watch helplessly as his men battled for hours, as he was simply unable to institute real change on the battlefield. His inability to mount a quick rescue of his men is all the more incongruous because of the remarkable aerial surveillance of the battle. This mission was what shattered the post-Gulf War illusions of American military invincibility, showing that poor communication, contingency planning, and politics can reduce the fighting capability of even the most elite soldiers of the worlds' most powerful army.

Remarkably, and quite fortunately considering the current trend in Hollywood, the movie stayed very true to the book. The story was not altered in order to make the movie easier to stomach, nor were fascists and Nazis substituted for Somalis to make the film more "politically correct." There were no major discrepancies between film and fact, other than the character of John Grimes (Ewan McGregor), who did not exist (in the Rangers at least). He was patterned after the real-life character of John Stebbins, who is currently serving a 30-year prison term for an incident unrelated to the Mogadishu attack. This name/character change was done at the request of the military.

Shortcomings in the film are few and far between. Although somewhat slow in the beginning, this period serves to educate the viewer on the situation in Somalia, the general mood of the troops stationed there, and on the purpose and plan of the particular mission around which the book and movie are based. The film is shot from the viewpoint of the Americans and the hordes of Somali militia suffered tremendous casualties. Although there are quite a few scenes showing militiamen getting shot, as well as one scene where helicopters strafe the rooftops of an entire block, it is not evident (until the end, where we are told on title cards) that as many as a thousand Somalis died during the battle, and many times that wounded. Additionally, little is mentioned of the captured pilot (Mike Durant) other than one short scene, until the title cards at the end tell of his fate. Absent from the film was one of the most gruesome and barbaric events of the entire battle - the mutilated bodies of U.S servicemen being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu while being beaten and spat upon. Such a scene is obviously not something to glorify, but given that Ridley Scott seemed to have stressed realism as much as anything else in the film, it would only make sense to include one of the battle's most significant moments. Perhaps Andrew O'Hehir said it best in his
Salon.com review by noting that "as unpleasant as it might be for Americans to see that image again, it contains a kind of truth that is both literal and symbolic. Like pictures of Ground Zero in New York, it reminds us of things we'd rather not be reminded of, but that we can't always avoid. It's not clear...that we are honoring the memories of Gordon and his comrades...by sanitizing our memories...by thinking only the thoughts...that we wish were true."

Ridley Scott's direction is very tight and many of the aerial shots are spellbinding. The entire acting ensemble is excellent. For the moviegoer who wants a soldiers-eye-view of what "real" war is like, Black Hawk Down is just the ticket. It is thrilling and frightening.

Unlike the Gulf War, the Mogadishu incident dispelled any notions of American invulnerability and once again proved Murphy's Law that things go wrong. The American intentions were noble and the American soldiers certainly were heroic. A few weeks after the attack, the American soldiers withdrew from Somalia without having accomplished their mission. To its credit, the film does not belabor such political niceties.


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