'Black Hawk Down' recaptures real events

Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2002

With ''Black Hawk Down,'' producer Jerry Bruckheimer more than redeems himself for the drippy debacle ''Pearl Harbor.'' And he can thank director Ridley Scott for that.

The gritty, in-your-face film, based on the botched U.S. military mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993, has all the scope and enormity of Bruckheimer's earlier war extravaganza, but it plays like a documentary of disaster.

Scott, whose versatile career spans from ''Alien'' and ''Blade Runner'' to ''Thelma and Louise'' and last year's Oscar-winning ''Gladiator,'' is relentless here; 90 minutes of the nearly 2 1/2-hour movie are non-stop gunfire. But the movie's action is so compelling, it's impossible not to be drawn in and emotionally drained.

The film is based on the book ''Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War,'' which Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden wrote after years of research and a trip to Somalia. The adapted screenplay from first-timer Ken Nolan fails to flesh out the individual U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers who were killed and injured -- one of the movie's weaknesses. Their collective story, though, is powerful.

On Oct. 3, 1993, soldiers on a U.N. peacekeeping mission were to drop in by helicopter and abduct two top assistants to Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who had been hoarding food to wield power over his country's people during civil war.

The effort was supposed to take no longer than 45 minutes -- soldiers didn't even bring canteens or night-vision goggles, figuring they wouldn't need them. Sixteen hours later, 18 men were dead and 73 others were injured, with countless more Somali casualties.

The film unflinchingly follows what went wrong. Early on, though, it is a bit too reminiscent at times of ''Top Gun,'' the 1986 Bruckheimer blockbuster, with its young hotshots trading bravado-infused banter.

But the tone shifts quickly once the mission gets under way.

Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), a young Ranger assigned to lead one of the four groups that are to secure the target building, is the voice of reason, but is low-key enough to avoid being preachy.

Ranger Pfc. Todd Blackburn (Orlando Bloom) touches off the disastrous chain of events when he misses a rope and plunges 60 feet from one of the Black Hawk helicopters.

While the soldiers manage to take several prisoners into custody, armed Somalis begin moving in. Fighting erupts, hindering the soldiers' attempts to pull out.

Then a rocket-propelled grenade takes out the first of two Black Hawks, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Cliff Wolcott (Jeremy Piven), and utter chaos ensues.

A U.S. convoy gets lost trying to help rescue the occupants of the downed helicopter. More armed Somalis charge the crash site. A second helicopter is shot down. More and more men are sent in to try to regain control; more and more men die.

Two of the leaders, Ranger Lt. Col. Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore) and Delta Sgt. Jeff Sanderson (William Fichtner), fight to keep their cool on the ground.

Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison (Sam Shepard) -- at the command center miles away -- watches the monitors in horror as every move he plots ends in bloodshed. Then night falls, and just when the gunfire seems to be over, a whole new round begins.

Slawomir Idziak's cinematography, nominated for an American Film Institute award (one of five nominations ''Black Hawk Down'' garnered for the first-ever AFI program), is beautiful and horrifying at the same time. His vast, dusty landscapes are breathtaking; his intimate moments, bloody and grotesque.

In one particularly excruciating scene, a group of soldiers perform impromptu surgery on one of their own, who has a severed artery in his leg.

In the end, ''Black Hawk Down'' doesn't glorify what happened; rather, it's a timely, brutally realistic depiction of the potentially devastating results of swooping down in a foreign land to enforce what we perceive as the greater good.

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