Black Hawk Down (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

1998's Saving Private Ryan introduced a new era of war movies. Gone are the bloodless tales of gallantry which portrayed the battlefield as a place where the fruits of bravery are victory. Replacing them are stories steeped in the gritty reality of combat - violent, bloody, horrific, and chaotic. Images of severed arms, fountaining blood, and spilled intestines have replaced the sterile, romanticized images of so many black-and-white war movies. For those who are not easily sickened by such visceral, cinematic assaults, films like Black Hawk Down can deliver a powerful, indelible impact.

In the years following Vietnam, the United States military has kept a low profile (insofar as the profile of a superpower's strong arm can be termed "low"), typically making its presence known (via television news) in "sure-fire" operations like the takeover of Grenada or the extraction of Noriega. More recently, the stunning success of the campaign in Afghanistan has re-affirmed the American public's faith in the armed forces. But there have been failures - and one of the most glaring occurred on an October day in 1993. Only a few years after the triumph of the Gulf War, the United States military machine was reminded that its perceived invulnerability was an example of self-delusion.

The screenplay of Black Hawk Down, written by Ken Nolan, is based on the book by Mark Bowden. Bowden, a staff reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, first detailed the disastrous 1993 raid into Mogadishu in a serialized, 29-part story that appeared in the paper during November and December of 1997. A year later, the book, which took the Inquirer series and expanded it, appeared in stores around the world. The final product attracted the interest of two marquee Hollywood names - uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and producer/director Ridley Scott, who was in search of something to follow-up Hannibal and Gladiator. The two paired up and Black Hawk Down got off the ground.

This is not an easy film to sit through, but it does what it sets out to do and brings the audience deep into the heart of combat. It's noisy, messy, and repetitious. There are probably more bullets and explosions than in any recent picture. Yet the illusion of "being there" is so real that, at one point, I involuntarily ducked my head to avoid being struck by something. Amazingly, Scott manages to convey the chaos of the experience without losing the narrative. There is a story to be told here - one based largely on the accounts of the survivors - and it comes across clearly, not muddled. Some have argued that not enough background is given, but I would counter that the introductory crawl is sufficient to set the stage. Black Hawk Down is not an attempt to analyze what happened in Somalia - its concern is dramatizing 24 hours of hell that killed 18 United States servicemen and injured 70 others while racking up a Somalian body count that numbered in the hundreds. The movie is about combat, not politics. It's about heroism and courage amidst unspeakable brutality.

Black Hawk Down opens with a quote by Plato: "Only the dead have seen the end of war". Then, over a color-desaturated series of images, we are presented with a brief history of why the United States was in Somalia in the early '90s. The story begins on October 2, 1993. Characters are introduced - Major General William Garrison (Sam Shepard), who is in command of the U.S. military presence in the region; Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), recently promoted to commanding a team; Company Clerk John Grimes (Ewan McGregor), who is about to exchange paperwork for a gun; Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore), in charge of a segment of the ground troops; and Master Sergeant Paul Howe (William Fichtner), who will challenge orders if he thinks they are ill-advised. Together, these men, and many others, are about to become involved in a seemingly routine mission that will go disastrously wrong.

The objective is to capture several key advisors to Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the warlord who controls Mogadishu. The United States wants Aidid out of the way, and this seems to be the best opportunity to advance that goal. But the troops, both on the ground and in the air, encounter stiffer resistance than expected, and this results in the downing of two black hawk helicopters. The ground troops then become divided as the raid turns into a rescue mission, and, in part because of poor planning and in part because of bad luck, the fire fight turns into a debacle.

Scott's movie is fast-paced and riveting. The film will keep the average viewer on the edge of his or her seat, with eyes fixed on the screen. Cinematographer Slavomir Idziak (best known as a frequent collaborator of the late, great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski) makes frequent, effective use of filters to dampen hues and enhance the "grittiness" of Black Hawk Down's appearance. Hans Zimmer's music is generally effective, although there are times when it calls attention to itself a little too much.

The performances are all effective because each of the actors knows how to downplay his part. Lead man Josh Hartnett appears far more comfortable in this role than he did as one of the romantic duelists in the overblown Pearl Harbor. Ewan McGregor, temporarily turning in his lightsaber, manages a reasonably convincing American accent as the film's least likely hero. But the real stars of Black Hawk Down are character actors Tom Sizemore and William Fichtner, both of whom create vivid personalities with limited screen time. Sizemore is no stranger to war movies, having appeared in both Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor. Fichtner is one of those guys whose name a lot of people won't recognize but whose face strikes an immediate chord of familiarity (the very definition of a "character actor") - he is perhaps best known for roles in Contact and Armageddon, and, like seemingly half of the cast, he was also in Pearl Harbor.

For Jerry Bruckheimer, who is most easily recognized for his involvement in big-budget, high-testosterone, low-intelligence projects, this is an opportunity to upgrade his image. (For the first time, pundits are mentioning "Bruckheimer" and "Oscar" in the same sentence.) And, at the moment, Ridley Scott is riding the highest wave of his career. Critical plaudits for Black Hawk Down are as high as they were for Gladiator - and rightfully so. This is a singularly effective motion picture. Sure, it could have had more character development and there are times when the gore verges on being gratuitously extreme (in particular, during the "operation" to clamp an artery), but those are minor quibbles. On the whole, Black Hawk Down is one hell of a ride. For better or for worse, it will leave you stunned and reeling.

Black Hawk Down (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 2:23
U.S. Release Date: 2002-01-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1