In 1993, American troops were sent to Somalia to help sort out the vicious civil war that was occurring at the time. Meant to keep the peace, the soldiers also had a mission: to find and remove Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid from power. "Black Hawk Down" (IMDb listing) details one incident in this crisis where a routine one-hour mission to find militia officers turned into a 15-hour bloodbath, as a handful of soldiers were stranded in a hostile city when their helicopter was shot down. Up against thousands of Somali militia, the troops had to fight their way out, in the process losing many of their own. For many of these young men, it was also an opportunity to witness the horrors of the civil war up close.
Directed by Ridley Scott, "Black Hawk Down" is as intense and blaring as a war film could ever be. Taking the realism approach to combat visualization that Spielberg utilized in "Saving Private Ryan," yet making carefully sure the film has a distinctly polished Ridleyesque feel to it, "Black Hawk" is both breathless and frustratingly vivid. The entire film is made up of this one, 15-hour conflict, and after setting up some badly needed character introductions in the first half hour, the picture soon settles in and becomes wall to wall fighting for the remaining 120 minutes. Since the structure of the film is to take you right inside the conflict, Scott makes sure your senses are pummeled and your disposition shaken before you leave the theater.
But does this sensibility work in the film's favor? Ridley Scott has never been the world's most subtle director. In this, his third film in less than two years (!), I believe Scott's judgment is getting more cloudy with each new picture. I love the film for plopping us down right into the thick of combat. You feel the bullets whiz by, hear the grenades explode all around you, and see the troops die with alarming ease. You feel every inch of the ground that these soldiers fought upon, yet Scott lingers on the carnage long after he has made his point. Scott even goes so far as to recall his macabre "Hannibal" during a mid-movie surgery scene in which no bloody, slippery detail is left to the imagination. In the Hannibal Lecter film, the violence had baroque consciousness, in "Black Hawk Down," it's just Scott rubbing your face in it.
Though just as violent, "Saving Private Ryan" seemed more careful in not suffocating the audience with blood and violence. It choose its moments carefully, whereas "Black Hawk Down" pulls a plastic bag over your head and attempts to justify it as "showcasing the realties of war." Maybe so, but war and cinema are two different realms, and Scott needs to learn when to dish out the atrocities and when to just hint at them.
To make this sensory assault go down all the more easier, Scott has assembled an impeccable cast to carry the story out. Acting as a road map to the who's who of young and old Hollywood males, "Black Hawk Down" features Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Ewan McGregor (hilariously trying to swallow his accent), William Fichtner, Ron Eldard, Jeremy Piven, Ewen Bremner, Orlando Bloom, Richard Tyson, Jason Issacs, Sam Shepard, Danny Hoch and the future Incredible Hulk himself, Eric Bana. The actors form a tight and believable unit, with Hartnett, Bana and Sizemore the standouts of the large cast. Scott, along with lukewarm screenwriter Ken Nolan, do not stumble into the military film trap of making these characters a buzz-haired blur. While not all clearly defined personas, the actors are all so unique that they easily form clean characterizations, even without help from the writing, which is more than willing to ignore the characters as the tension builds.
One of the more interesting aftertastes to "Black Hawk Down" is that I'm not entirely convinced that Scott has made up his mind over who was more victimized by this mission. While Scott does forcefully create an intense mood of patriotism, complete with an American flag waving in the background and Whitesnake-style squealing guitars of machismo, he also counterbalances this with impossibly crafted shots of Somali death; scenes that are chilling to behold. It appears that Scott is reluctant to side with the Somali militia, due to a recent insurgence of national patriotism. Yet there are many instances in the finished film where Scott makes his point clear that maybe the American troops didn't belong in the country. It's this type of gentle subterfuge that keeps "Black Hawk Down" interesting through the less than fascinating moments. I can only imagine the slant Scott would've taken with the picture if not burdened with such a large budget and the 800lb gorilla known as producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
Filmfodder Grade: B