Black Hawk Down

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 01/29/02 00:47:20

"No animals were hurt during the making of this movie. As for humans, well.."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It was going to be so, so bad. Another Bruckheimer war film after Pearl Harbor. It was going to be jingoistic, stars-and-stripe waving rubbish. There was surely going to be a subplot where some army Nurse creates a love triangle with Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor before one of them dies hurling himself in front of a grenade to save the other from certain death. But wait, what's this? Bruckheimer seems to have learnt something...

...which is if you're going to try and recreate a tragic event in military history, get a director who will actually do the job, instead of some cock-sucking little servant boy grateful for any titbits you throw him from your 'in' pile on your desk (hello Michael Bay!)

For although this is a Bruckheimer production, this is a Ridley Scott film. Yes, there's the typical sunset shot.Yes, helicopters glide over sunny beaches making Somalia look like a summer break. But that's where the Bruckheimer-isms end. Because Scott has created a riveting infantrymens point of view of the chaos of war and he never lets us forget that above all this mission was a complete fuck-up.

Somalia, 1993, and warlord Mohamed Farrah Idid holds the country to ransom by withholding food supplies and letting the population slowly starve. Aid workers attempt to remedy the situation but come under attack and are forced to pull out. Enter the US Delta Force and Army Rangers. A surveillance mission spots two of Idid's most trusted aides in Mogadishu and General Harrison (Sam Sheperd) comes up with a snatch'n'grab mission: ground forces to hold the area and grab the aides while helicopters provide cover from the air. He estimates it should only take an hour at most but once they enter the area they come under heavy fire, resulting in two of the helicopters being shot down and around 170 soldiers being surrounded by a city full of armed rebels which is where the shit really hits the fan...

'Black Hawk Down' is obviously going to be well known for one thing, and that is Scott's recreation of what became a near day long battle. It's the most buttock clenchingly scary version of war since 'Saving Private Ryan'. If you take the last half-hour of that film, where the company defends a bombed out town against an onslaught of tanks, multiply it by three and add the relative size of the forces from 'Zulu' you have the essential plot of 'Black Hawk Down'. True, there's no major attempt to put the mission in a political context but it works both ways. Although there's no attempt to show the Somali point of view (Idid is never seen), we're also never in doubt that this is America way in over it's head. Most soldiers don't have a clue why they're there and are ill-prepared for the ferocity of resistance. It never for minute screams "GO AMERICA!!!".

Instead Scott focuses on the terror of the situation and it's a mighty achievement. Despite the utter chaos Scott never loses control. Flitting expertly from pov shots from the soldiers trapped on the streets, to overhead shots from the remaing helicopters and back to the command centre where Harrison looks on in growing alarm at what his monitors are showing him, Scott makes a big claim for his name to be on the Oscar shortlist again. Topping the scenes from 'Saving Private Ryan' is no easy feat, and when you consider that he has a whole city, not just one beach, to play with it makes Scott's feat even more impressive.

There's a cursory attempt to introduce the characters before battle, but there's so many that once in battle it does become difficult to keep track of who's who. At one point I thought Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) was in a humvee, but two minutes we cut back to him still on the streets. However Scott balances this problem out by stealing a trick from Oliver Stone's JFK: making most of the characters a well known 'face', so even if we don't know the characters name we know the actor. It's a starry cast also including Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, William Fichtner, Jason Issacs, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana and Tom Sizemore who after this, Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor seems to be cornering the market in gruff army types. But it's not a 'star' movie, with no-one character dominating the movie. Everyone is fine in their role, including Hartnett making amends for Pearl Harbor, but it's a movie where everyone matters not just the good-looking ones. See what happens when you don'tstick a love story in for the hell of it?

If 'Black Hawk Down' has one problem then it's in Scotts usual lack of character detail. With the possible exception of 'Gladiator' and 'Thelma and Louise' Scotts' films and characters rarely work on an emotional level. We never really care that much when lives are lost here. Sure, we're scared as hell along with them but it lacks the emotional punch of a '...Ryan' or even 'Three Kings'. The screenplay never gives much depth to the characters either, relying on stock cliches like the desk-boy given his first mission, the loner who does things his way, the too eager recruit who you just know is going to come to grief sooner rather than later. And there's also plenty of "you'll be all right son" and "I just want to make a difference" dialogue for the cliche-o-meter.

But that's just a niggling flaw as we are shown how horrific this day became. We see bodies blown in half, graphic field surgery on a shot artery and Scott racks the tension up constantly, with one scene where a wounded pilot is besieged in his ruined copter a highlight of where you do actually get some feeling for the character.

It's relatively easy to review this movie as it's basically "here are the characters- oh fuuuuucccckkkk!" and your liking will depend on how much action you can stomach with no change in plot. But since when have real events leant themselves to a structure? I'm torn between a four or five star rating, because although there's no real emotional depth, Scott has made an astonishing portrait of a very, very bad day for the American army and has to be commended for his bravery not to douse the film in patriotism and to just focus on the plight of the men who were there. I'll have to settle for the four star rating but if I could cheat I'd give it four and a half. You may not grieve for the characters but you'll be just as shellshocked as they are.

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