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Black Hawk Down

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 01/19/02 17:14:45

"Not a great film, but an effective one"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Black Hawk Down” begins with a quote from Plato. “Only the dead can truly see the end of war.” A somewhat risky sentiment these days, seeing as our country has been fighting a war so that we may live in peace. Of course, we would all want this current war to end so that we may go about our days without having to think about it anymore. This statement echoes time and time again throughout “Black Hawk Down,” which may explain why most of its 143 minute running time consists of battle sequences. I don’t mean to say this movie went on endlessly, but it does give us a feel for a long, horrific day in the trenches.

The movie depicts the day our troops went into Mogadishu, Somalia in October of 1993 to remove a warlord and drop humanitarian aide to the survivors. Sound familiar? It should. In fact, I’m sure this movie will have you thinking about our men in Afghanistan throughout its entire duration. The most startling aspect of this particular operation and director Ridley Scott’s depiction of it is that it all takes place in one day. Major General William F. Garrison (Sam Sheppard) at first has a simple plan: Stage an invasion on the place where, supposedly, the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, will be having a meeting.

The operation does not go according to plan. Instead, it unleashes just about every armed soldier in Somalia, and soon the American troops find themselves in a series of cat-and-mouse games that include every type of ground warfare known to man. For a good two hours, bullets fly, missals launch and helicopters get shot to the ground (“Black Hawk” refers to the first helicopter to go down). Two-and-a-half hours for us, about 20-24 hours for them.

Scott makes the element of time crucial to the story at an unconventional point. Just as a helicopter lands in Somalia, right smack in the middle of a sequence, we see the caption “3:42 PM.” After what feels like a good 45 minutes of gunfire and catastrophe, the next time we get a time check, it reads “4:45 PM.” The importance of time keeps coming back to us, since one of the troops tells another that the operation should only take about an hour.

“Black Hawk Down” doesn’t make a case for any political motivations. Instead, it has a more bare-bones and personal approach. The question of whether or not we should have been there never comes up. A question does come up about why soldiers fight in the first place, and when the answer comes up, we believe it. Instead of trying to be a promotional tool for patriotism or a popcorn fluff-fest centered around one attack sequence (“Pearl Harbor”), “Black Hawk Down” has a clear center and purpose. It merely tries to convey the feeling of inadvertent heroism, and in that area, it succeeds beautifully.

Ridley Scott has always been a better technical director than an emotional one. Most of his movies, with the exception of “Thelma and Louise,” leave me feeling cold and distant. Rarely do I actually care about the characters he depicts. It happens here as well. While “Black Hawk Down” showcases one stunning battle/attack sequence after another, they do overshadow the performances and the characters within them. Nothing comes across as false or forced from any of the actors (including the ever-bland Josh Hartnett), but it would have been nice for them to have a few more shining moments.

And the movie has many cliché pitfalls we come to expect. Bullets hitting the ground in slow motion, the child sniper, the “tell my wife…” moment, and the one character we know will not be coming home even before we get to the second reel. Also, composer Hans Zimmer seems to have forged a new sub-genre for himself as lead composer of harrowing war movies. As a frequent listener to the “Thin Red Line” soundtrack, I couldn’t help but notice that Zimmer recycled many of his cues for this film.

As did most other critics and colleagues, I couldn’t help but feel a bit worried that I would be a victim of another brainless, dumbed-down commercial ploy by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the same producer who assaulted us mercilessly with “Pearl Harbor” and “Coyote Ugly.” One of the hardest hitters in the biz, Bruckheimer has never been known to be a “thinker.” I’m not sure what got into him here, but I sat in that theater and completely forgot about the name attached to the project. He still won’t get the Oscar he’s trying for, but at least this time he hired a more qualified director.

“Black Hawk Down” will no doubt have people talking about the current War Against Terrorism and the many parallels that this movie shares with it. I’m sure that in ten or twenty years, we will see films about Afghanistan. Hopefully at that time the economic crisis and the AIDS epidemic that plagues Africa will not have caused the entire continent to implode, which is the way the pendulum swings at the moment. Should that happen, our war in Afghanistan might resemble a blip on the radar and a movie about it might make us think about the simpler times in which we lived. With its opening and closing statements, “Black Hawk Down” gives us a clear feeling that one singular day can decode an entire lifetime. War has become a way of life on both sides and it will never end.

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