Whatever one felt about Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (and I wasn't much of a fan), most would have to admit that the film's opening sequence which thrust the viewers immediately into the D-Day landing at Normandy set the bar for any future war movies. The visceral "you-are-there" quality of the filmmaking perhaps was the closet depiction of what real battle was like. Of course, in the last sixty-odd years, the means by which wars are fought have changed significantly. Vietnam marked a generation and the nightly news broadcasts brought that conflict into living rooms in an immediate fashion never before seen. The Gulf War conflict and the fighting in Afghanistan have marked an even different take, the battlefield as video game. Black Hawk Down, which recounts a 1993 routine mission in Somalia that went horribly awry, there's a fusion of the reel and the real.
There has already been some controversy engendered by the film makers' decision to concentrate on the American side of the story to the exclusion of the Somalis. In his journalistic reportage that formed the basis of the best-selling book, Mark Bowden of The Philadelphia Inquirer included much more background, not only of the individual men involved but allowed for the Somali point of view. Clearly dramatic license had to be taken in adapting the story to the screen by writer Ken Nolan (with a reportedly uncredited assist from Steve Zaillian, who doctored that opening scene of Spielberg's award winner). While some of the characters lost their individuality (having lesser known actors play the roles didn't help matters), the ultimate result remains a gripping if somewhat dramatically hollow portrait of warfare.
While Jerry Bruckheimer has come under fire for producing big-budget jingoistic features (i.e., Top Gun), he deserves kudos for hiring Ridley Scott to steer this film. While it is true that story has never been Scott's strong suit, he brings his astute visual sense to Black Hawk Down. For those unaware, the film is based on events that occurred in October 1993. A year earlier under President George Bush, US troops had been sent to Somalia as part of a humanitarian mission. Local troops under the leadership of Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid, however, were disrupting the delivery of food and other supplies. After an assault on American soldiers in August 1993 then President Bill Clinton dispatched members of the Special Operations force to coordinate with the CIA in capturing Aidid. On October 3, a so-called "snatch" mission to capture several of Aidid's closest confidantes was executed. What should have been a fairly easy assignment turned into what has come to be called the Battle of Mogadishu, in which 18 Americans died and more than 70 were wounded. (The Somali death toll varies but is generally accepted at 300 with over 700 wounded.) It's the events of October 3 that are depicted in Black Hawk Down.
After a brief introduction explaining what was happening in Somalia, Scott dispenses with the necessary exposition introducing the various men. Of the large cast, several stand out, particularly top-billed Josh Hartnett who attempts to build on his emerging leading man status in Pearl Harbor. Cast as the idealistic Sgt. Matt Eversman, he is the closest thing to a leading character in the film. Hartnett also has a couple of moments, including a speech near the end, where he gets to display his chops. Ewan McGregor makes a bit of an impression as a desk jockey craving the opportunity to see battle, although once in the thick of things, he doesn't register as much. Tom Sizemore does a nice job as a seasoned veteran who gets caught up in a nightmare of misinformation. (The convoy he is heading receives conflicting reports from his superiors as to the safest way out of the city. Scenes like that give one pause; despite the most sophisticated equipment, the ground soldiers are sometimes subjected to the whim of human error.) Eric Bana and William Fichtner both offer memorable characterizations, while Sam Shepard as the commanding officer delivers a fine turn.
Scott has assembled a terrific production team, from cinematographer Slawomir Idziak to editor Pietro Scalia to production designer Arthur Max. Shot on location outside Rabat, Morocco, Black Hawk Down is perhaps the most brutal and intense fictional screen depiction of battle. The audience is thrust into the chaos of fighting and one can almost feel the desert heat, hear the whiz of passing bullets and see the destruction that war can cause. Perhaps ironically, the film is almost an anti-war movie a much as it is a celebration of the lives of those who fought on that October day. Black Hawk Down is a masterful, if flawed, motion picture.
Rating: B MPAA Rating: R for intense, realistic, graphic war violence, and for language Running time: 144 mins.