Black Hawk Down (2002)

D: Ridley Scott
S: Josh Hartnett, Sam Shepard

A powerful if politically suspect depiction of combat and a state of siege, Ridley Scott's adaptation of the non-fiction account of a botched mission in Somalia sustains the intensity of the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan for over two hours. Ironically though, it manages to inject the same amount of relatively unproblematic jingoism and leaves the audience with no more complex a sense of the moral imperative of belligerent American armies than any recent supposedly 'anti-war' film. It hardly matters in the face of such a brilliantly rendered sense of constant and increasing peril, as the film draws you in from the opening and never lets go. By the time you have left the theatre, your sense of immersion is so complete that you have begun to understand the simplistic aphorisms spouted by the hard-assed army ranger who elects to return to the fray. This is exactly the point, of course.

The story concerns the events which transpired in Somalia in 1993 when U.S. Troops were engaged in operations to remove militia operating under the banner of General Muhammad Farah Aydid following the collapse of the post-civil war cease fire. Without spending too much time setting up the politics of the situation, the film drops the viewer into the world of the Delta Force and Army Ranger units preparing an extraction of suspected rebel leaders from hostile territory in the capital city of Mogadishu. Self-consciously referring to the area as 'The Wild West', U.S. General Sam Shepard oversees a disastrous operation in which things begin going seriously wrong with the crash landing of a Black Hawk helicopter. Sticking by the sloganistic policy of 'leave no man behind', squad after squad of men are sent in after the downed pilots while the Somali militia gradually become more co-ordinated in their response.

Black Hawk Down is nothing more or less than a western in combats. It's a classic story of rugged all-American cowboys in hostile Indian territory (the only irony being that the 'cavalry', when it arrives, partially consists of a UN Pakistani convoy). The iconography is different, the technology is contemporary, but the essentials are the same. Early on when Shepard's uncompromising General speaks about Texas, one senses that Scott knows well what genre he's working in, and how to draw elements from others to engage his audience. The portrayal of the Somali as an undifferentiated mass of 'savages' is thus less surprising if no less offensive. Being a genre picture though it doesn't really require close analysis of its political sub-text. This is mass-market entertainment of the highest order, a superb spectacle of orgiastic violence supported by a basis in fact and a wholesomeness in its representation of the American military which befits the mood of the time of its release.

To be fair, the film is mounted with honesty and directness. There is never any question of engaging with the 'big picture' here. The film is focused on the microcosmic level, an extreme close-up of several hours of combat from the point of view of those on the front line. It captures this brilliantly, drawing suspense and drama from every moment of violent confrontation. The ebb and flow of the battle is used well, stretching a nominally thin narrative over its running time with ease. There are plenty of character vignettes and a variety of action, all shot and edited with an eye for detail and authenticity which comes from a massive budget and good consultants.

There is a large cast of semi-recognisable faces, most surprising of which is Ewan McGregor (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) as an army clerk who unexpectedly finds his way to the battlefield. Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbour) is good in what amounts to the lead, a rookie squad leader who only wants to get in and get out with all of his men intact, a prospect which becomes increasingly unlikely as the film progresses. All of the performers manage to look suitably harried and dusty under pressure, and there are plenty of moments of human drama which give them something to do apart from gunplay.

The film marks a definite step up for Scott following the disastrously silly Hannibal. The script lacks the emotional and moral heft of Gladiator, but if the mood of the United States has not shifted by next year, it might well find itself up for awards when the time comes. It is interesting how politically expedient its release has turned out to be in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, but those seeking to make a meal of this should bear in mind how long it has been in production, after all.

Black Hawk Down is a compelling piece of filmmaking which is entertaining if not always easy viewing. It is unlikely to win sly left-of-centre plaudits the way Three Kings did, but its simplicity is, to my mind, less disappointing than the former film's eventual refusal to follow through with its convictions as an 'anti-war' parable. Only Terrence Malick has succeeded in delivering a perspective on warfare in recent years which did not eventually endorse it (The Thin Red Line), and Black Hawk Down is honest enough to begin with a caption citing the Platonic conviction that it is endemic to our nature.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.