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Black Hawk Down   A

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Steven Zaillian, Ken Nolan (based on the book by Mark Bowden)
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, Ewan Bremner, Orlando Bloom, Sam Shepard.

Review by Rob Vaux

In the heat of battle, everything breaks down. Ideologies and politics cease to matter. Whatever nebulous justifications for fighting are swept away as soon as the first bullets fly. The only thing left is pure, relentless Darwinism, devoid of any reasoning or argument: I have to kill that man, or else he is going to kill me. Black Hawk Down understands the cold truth of combat, and presents it with unshakable aplomb. It exists on a purely sensual level, eschewing traditional notions of drama and storytelling. Though it adheres to a bare-bones plot, its energy lies somewhere beyond. It isn't so much a yarn as an immersive experience, an attempt to convey the foot soldier's viewpoint in the most primal and immediate manner possible.

It's fitting that such a meditation would take place in the historic footnote of the Somali civil war: a conflict that ultimately involved both the U.S. Army and UN Peacekeepers. Sandwiched between Desert Storm and Bosnia -- a veritable hiccup in the New World Order -- it nonetheless placed thousands of soldiers in considerable jeopardy for murky and ill-defined goals. The all-but-forgotten operation thus becomes a cipher for war in general. Though the setting has a very fixed time and place, its essence transcends those boundaries. The fresh-faced young men on-screen could come from any country, and be a part of any conflict from the Peloponnesian War to the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

The film opens with a mob of starving Somalians charging a truck full of food, only to be fired upon by the armed thugs atop it. The food belongs to their warlord, the men say, and they'll kill anyone who tries to take it. A helicopter full of American soldiers circles the scene, its occupants itching to stop the brutality. No, their commanders inform them. The situation is not their concern.

In other hands, such a setup would lead the way for a gung-ho shoot 'em up: a jingoistic affirmation of American righteousness as Our Boys bash the appropriately foreign Forces of Evil. But Black Hawk Down has better things in mind, and knows that such simplistic reasoning just doesn't exist outside the multiplex. The soldiers in the chopper soon learn firsthand why such orders are given: the way even a minor skirmish can spiral out of control and how a desire to do the right thing may not make a damn bit of difference.

The bulk of the film involves a botched attempt to take several Somali war criminals into custody. A hundred-odd U.S. troops, traveling in choppers and Hum-Vees, surrounded a building in Mogadishu with the intention of capturing all those inside. The operation was supposed to take only 30 minutes; in the end, it lasted nearly a day and cost 19 American lives, along with God knows how many Somalis. Director Ridley Scott follows every part of the attack, but he isn't overly concerned about specific details. Instead, he keeps the proceedings abstract, concentrating on sights, sounds, and emotions. His ability to create complete cinematic universes finds a potent outlet here, in the wild streets and back alleys of Mogadishu. Under Scott's direction, the city becomes a forbidding, alien landscape where outsiders are not welcome. Mogadishu is a maze of roadblocks and tire fires, occupied by the resentful minions of the local warlord. Fights take place only a few blocks away from each other, yet they might as well be different planets. From the instant the soldiers hit the ground, we know they're in trouble. The American presence touches off a firestorm: thousands of militia members, armed to the teeth, take out their frustrations on anyone who steps into the crosshairs.

The characters are almost generic, with their shaved heads and mottled beige fatigues. Though we have an audience surrogate in Josh Hartnett's earnest sergeant, the film doesn't limit itself to his experience. It leaps back and forth between elements, following each aspect of the increasingly convoluted operation. Soon, one of the choppers goes down, followed by a second. The soldiers, who spent their time on base taking jump shots and debating the abstract reasons for their presence, find themselves cut off and surrounded by an enemy who desires their complete obliteration. Their efforts to survive highlights a lot of war film clichés -- bungled commands, the brotherhood of soldiers, an eager newbie who learns that combat really isn't cool after all -- but retain their core of truth in a way that other war films can't. Scott reaches into the heart of the incident and delivers it in wordless, gut-wrenching depth. At the same time, he deftly avoids political rationales, keeping right and wrong on the sidelines lest they interfere with the proceedings. The Americans' genuine morality is contrasted by their arrogant naïveté, their assumption that they can solve this crisis after so many others have failed. The Somalis are faceless, but never dehumanized, and we sense their agony as freshly as their rage. The result is a brilliant achievement, empathic and warm yet devoid of subjective judgement. There are no villains here, no faceless evils to be vanquished. Just an ugly situation and the way real people have to deal with it.

Black Hawk Down was co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, arguably Tinseltown's most exploitative hack. His knack for flashy, kinetic formalism finds an almost perfect expression here, transforming his cheap showmanship into something worthwhile. It allows us to momentarily forgive the countless cinematic abominations he has thrust upon us... and reminds us that Scott, one of our most underrated directors, remains a force to be reckoned with. Black Hawk Down is as good a film as he's ever made and one of the best pictures you're likely to see this year.

Review published 01.14.2002.

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