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The adrenaline rises in Black Hawk Down

Black Hawk Down
Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Ken Nolan based on the book by Mark Bowden. With Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, and Sam Shepard. A Columbia Pictures release. At the Boston Common, the Fenway, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

The Black pack

LOS ANGELES — The most notable thing about Black Hawk Down may be its release during a time when the United States is at war. Not only are American forces engaged in hunting down Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan — a task not unlike that performed by the Rangers and Delta Force members depicted in this movie — but Somalia, the setting of the bloody 18-hour battle, may be the site of future American action as the Bush administration plans phase two of the War on Terrorism.

Well aware of all this, director Ridley Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer moved the film’s release date from spring 2002 to December 28 in New York and Los Angeles and mid January in the rest of the country. As Scott points out, "It’s certainly timely. It emerges that bin Laden’s guys or bin Laden himself might have been present in the process of training these people with Russian weapons." If that’s true, it would explain how the Somalis were able to shoot down four American helicopters, two in hostile territory, an act that cost 18 American lives. Scott continues, "There’s a chance bin Laden’s there [in Somalia] now. I don’t think he would go into Pakistan somehow."

Mark Bowden, who wrote the 1999 non-fiction account of the battle of Mogadishu on which the movie is based, is less certain of Osama’s direct involvement back in 1993. "I don’t think bin Laden necessarily played a very direct role in what happened. It’s a myth that has grown legs." Bowden reminds us that numerous Islamic fundamentalists provided Somali militiamen with military assistance. Still, he acknowledges that the battle and its aftermath — the spectacle of the bodies of dead Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu — helped lead to September 11. And pointing to America’s failure to intervene in Rwanda, Bosnia, and, initially, Kosovo, he argues that "the reluctance of the US to use military force in the world after the battle of Mogadishu is something the world and the United States have paid a very high price for. In a different kind of climate where we were more pro-active with our military, we would have gone after Osama bin Laden tooth and claw in 1998, when he attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and we might never have seen September 11 if we’d done so."

Bowden stops short of attributing direct political responsibility for the lost American lives. In the film, Major General William Garrison (Sam Shepard) does tell his men that he requested light armor — which would have facilitated the extraction of the downed hellicopter pilots and other Americans — but "that Washington in its infinite wisdom rejected it." But Scott removed a reference at the film’s end referring to President Clinton’s withdrawal of American troops two weeks after the engagement — a decision that prompted producer Bruckheimer, in a later interview, to remark, "That’s news to me."

Scott employed three military consultants — two of them veterans of the battle — to help ensure realism. Colonel Lee Van Arsdale, who received a Purple Heart after the battle, says he had to remind himself that the armed Somali militiamen wandering around the Morocco set were just actors and not there to kill him. And the filmmakers persuaded the Pentagon to assist in the making of the movie; it sent four Black Hawk helicopters, four smaller helicopters, and 100 real Rangers to North Africa (certainly a pre–September 11 use of American force). One of the men depicted as retrieving the body of an American from one of the downed helicopters is, in fact, the same person who performed that act in Mogadishu.

But though actor Josh Hartnett is proud of the film’s realism, he is squeamish over being so strongly identified with the American military at a time when the country is at war. Hartnett, who has now played American heroes in two Bruckheimer vehicles, the other being Pearl Harbor, calls the notion that he might be seen as a poster boy for the American war effort "ridiculous. In an upcoming film, I play a guy who gives up sex for Lent, and I don’t know if I’m going to become the poster boy for abstinence."

Tom Sizemore, Hartnett’s elder, leaps to his co-star’s defense. "They’re not going to make him that, and if they try to make him that, he won’t let them and I won’t let them." Sizemore adds that he is "proud" to have played the character of Colonel McKnight: "At this particular moment, we need to protect our borders, and we need to punish the people who did this [the September 11 attacks] to us." The farthest the soft-spoken Hartnett will go is to say, "Civilians should not be a part of war on all sides."

— Seth Gitell

Most war movies question the purpose of war. Black Hawk Down questions the purpose of war movies. Should they arouse patriotic spirits and honor the sacrifice of our armed forces? Should they denounce war’s inhumanity? Should they explore war’s causes and cost? Or re-create the experience of combat for the vicarious enjoyment of spectators who invest no more than the price of a ticket? In these politically precarious times, Ridley Scott opts for entertainment.

Although fitfully moving, eloquent, and even poetic, Scott’s adaptation of Mark Bowden’s fine book about the ill-fated 1993 raid by US special-operations units in Mogadishu pretty much limits its scope to superficial thrills. Without much in the way of context or character development (you’ll find more political edge in, say, Scott’s Blade Runner), the film favors visceral excitement over comprehension or context. War is hell: let’s take a tour.

True, it’s only a movie, but this was no ordinary military engagement, and these are not ordinary times. The botched raid in Mogadishu proved a turning point in US foreign policy, putting an end to future military intervention even during the genocides of Bosnia and Rwanda, and discouraging the pursuit of such vague threats as terrorism. Vague, that is, until the catastrophe of September 11.

In the film, though, these issues become as simple-minded as the politics of Dirty Harry. The Somalian warlords led by Mohamed Farrah Aidid — black men in do-rags and Ray-Bans who look like rappers or South Central gangbangers — have used famine as a means to power. Three hundred thousand have starved to death, and so Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos under crusty Major General William Garrison (Sam Shepard) have to go in and take some of the bad guys out in a daring mission.

But the red tape and the clueless impatience of Washington hobble the good guys from doing their job — no armor, no gunships, poor timing — and things go wrong from the start. In an allusion perhaps to Apocalypse Now, choppers head out over the beaches and squalor of the city not to the Ride of the Valkyries but to Jimi Hendrix’s "Voodoo Child." Exhilarating, but down below a kid holds a cell phone to the sky, a militia leader hears the engines roar on the other end, and armed men and women and children by the hundreds and thousands are on the move.

Why do they hate us? The film doesn’t much care. But fate doesn’t seem on our side either, as the first Black Hawk chopper is downed and the planned 30-minute mission unravels into an 18-hour Sisyphean ordeal ending with 19 Americans and a thousand Somalis killed. Much of that is rendered in this film as the greatest video game ever played, with black-skinned targets bearing Kalashnikovs and RPGs popping up in front of American gunsights and getting blasted — points taken off, no doubt, for shooting innocent civilians. As the original goals of the mission disintegrate and survival becomes paramount, the reptile brain of flight and fight take over, for the filmmakers as well as for the embattled soldiers.

Under these chaotic conditions, the cooler heads of the character actors prevail, such latter-day William Bendixes as Tom Sizemore in the role of Lieutenant Colonel Danny McKnight, who mutters to himself in a blood-spattered Humvee as his convoy’s simple mission of "extraction" deteriorates. His bullet-riddled vehicles chug through a gantlet of roadblocks, militia fire, and misdirection from command as he tries to rescue downed pilots sent to rescue troops and the troops sent out to rescue them. It’s a vicious circle that underscores the film’s central contradiction: though Black Hawk Down celebrates the Rangers’ determination to "leave no one behind," it also illustrates how when put into practice that idea usually results in more left behind.

America’s subsequent solution, until recently, was no longer to put anyone there in the first place, a position questioned by the film’s "idealist," Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), who maintains that "we can either help or watch the country destroy itself on CNN." But as hardnosed Delta Force sergeant "Hoot" Hooten (Eric Bana) points out, once the shooting starts, all thought of politics goes out the window.

That’s the case, at least, in this movie (Hooten is one of the film’s few fictitious characters). Without developed characters or ideas to add depth and meaning to its voyeuristic violence, it comes dangerously close to pornography. What saves it, perhaps, is an overriding tone of melancholy, a sense of tragic human frailty, from the opening epigraph, Plato’s "Only the dead have seen the end of war," to the playing of Thomas Moore’s "The Minstrel Boy" over the end credits. When a medic gropes in a gaping wound to retrieve a retracted artery, or when a fallen soldier murmurs about his wife and a cut reveals that a grenade has blasted him into a shredded, gut-oozing torso, war begins to seem like hell again.

Issue Date: January 17 - 24, 2002
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