****/**** Image A- Sound A+
starring Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana
screenplay by Ken Nolan, based on the book by Mark Bowden
directed by Ridley Scott
by Walter Chaw Black Hawk Down is a living, seething animal, full of courage and heroism, stinking of blood and gunpowder. It lacks the paternalistic moralizing of Saving Private Ryan as well as much of the poetry of The Thin Red Line, but it captures the best images of both while discarding the chaff of the former. One scene towards the end of the film, as exhausted U.S. Rangers are led to safety by a group of Somali children, is a fine example of that brute synergy. Ridley Scott's film is the only big budget spectacle film of the last several years (Pearl Harbor, The Perfect Storm, all the way back to Titanic) that actually has the nerve to honour the event it seeks to recreate. The characters aren't stock movie stereotypes--in fact, they're so minimally portrayed that the general homogeny of its soldiers in battle serves to highlight mainly a minimalist "us against them" mentality. Black Hawk Down trusts its audience; it is perhaps the first and only time that this will be said of a Jerry Bruckheimer production.
Sent on a humanitarian mission to Somalia in 1993, there is another moment, early in Black Hawk Down (really, the film is a collection of shocking or ironic images) where U.S. Special Forces troops, bored and trigger-happy, chow down in a mess tent, the best-fed, best-trained, best-outfitted standing army in the world set down in a famine-stricken wasteland overrun by "technicals" (rusted-out trucks and cars outfitted with machine gun tripods) and reclusive tyrants who attract the attention of the Americans by terrorizing a UN peacekeeping force and hijacking aid shipments. On October 3rd, just before four in the afternoon, American commandos are ordered to abduct key members in the organization of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. What begins as a thirty-minute raid ends as a fifteen-hour ordeal: the heaviest and costliest firefight involving American soldiers since Vietnam.
During the course of that long night, eighteen out of 120 American troops and over one thousand Somalis lost their lives. Not long afterward, the United States withdrew from Somalia. In 1997, Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Mark Bowden interviewed survivors from either side of the conflict and produced a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles eventually collected in a book called Black Hawk Down. Subtitled "A Story of Modern War," it shows what happened in Somalia eight years ago, a brutal summary of why, to this day, the U.S. has been reluctant to devote ground troops to an armed conflict, as well as a frightening glimpse at what awaits us in Somalia, very possibly our next military target after Afghanistan.
Predicated on a string of military objectives--hastily described, desperately relayed, and fearfully attempted--Black Hawk Down is a complex drama joined in medias res: a snapshot of the key conflagration in a conflict without an easily identifiable instigating factor and with no measurable solution. It is without a conventional plot, in other words, both an anti-war film (in that the only objective that is clear is survival) and an exhilarating celebration of how in war often the single most important objective is preserving the life of the person fighting next to you. While the events of October 3rd are compressed or slightly modified to preserve the grim flow of the story (a soldier cuts a plaster cast off to join the fray in reality--not so in the film: that act of bravery ironically too heavy-handedly cinematic), Black Hawk Down is relentless in its adherence to flat truth.
There are details, however, that I wished had been included, particularly the clarification that the 5.56mm green tungsten carbide tip ammunition (designed to pierce body armour) used by the United States in Somalia actually proved to have questionable stopping power: it would punch all the way through a person, necessitating multiple or precision hits. Small quibbles aside, a desperate battlefield surgery to save the life of a badly wounded soldier is shown in clinical, cringing detail, and various appalling mutilations turn the film into a grinding charnel house. War can be invigorating and heady, but it isn't often pretty; in that regard Black Hawk Down is possibly the best film of its kind, capturing the adrenalized excitement of armed conflict in addition to the sheer horror of it.
Only fair to warn you that Columbia TriStar will be reissuing Black Hawk Down on DVD in the near future in a Special Edition form--but one is hardly settling with the studio's bare-bones release of this title. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen video transfer seems an accurate representation of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak's high-contrast, orange-hued images; the compression is stymied--mostly by grain--in no more than a handful of shots. Meanwhile, I've scarcely heard a better DVD than Black Hawk Down, which won the Oscar for Best Sound. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix yanks you by the collar into the action with constant split-surround activity, and there is great subtlety in the use of the LFE channel--each explosion makes an impact unique to itself. (Chapter 9, "Super Six One Down," impresses in every respect--sound, picture, cinematically...) Columbia saw fit to include the 24-minute "On the Set of Black Hawk Down," which doesn't get beyond plot synopsis until its second half, when we learn that Morocco stood in for Somalia and that some sequences were shot with up to fifteen cameras at once. Other than this making-of, the disc features filmographies for key cast and crew plus trailers for Spider-Man and The One, both in 5.1. Caveat purists: Black Hawk Down's optical subtitles have been replaced with yellow video captions for the translated African dialogue. Originally published: June 22, 2002.