NOW PLAYING: Black Hawn Down

Posted: Monday, February 04, 2002

Black Hawk Down is nothing less than harrowing. I just want to say that right off the bat because, though the movie is excellent, and worth your money, it hits you like a ton of bricks, and you should be prepared.

Black Hawk Down is the true story of a failed United States military action in Mogadishu, Somalia. As the movie begins, we are given a fair amount of background that helps to distill some of the complex military and political history of this ravaged third world nation. Currently under the power of ruthless warlords, Somalia is a country dying of starvation and choking on corruption. Elite U.S. Army forces, including the Rangers and the Delta Force, are attempting to provide some stability to the region, particularly by ensuring that shipments of food and medical supplies get to the common people, rather than being stolen by the vicious Adid, the most powerful warlord in Somalia. The actual battle that Black Hawk chronicles takes place as the U.S. forces attempt to arrest two of Adid's top lieutenants. What was meant to be a quick, precise extraction turned into a daylong nightmare for the more than 100 soldiers involved.

This is definitely an action movie. However, this isn't the kind of action movie where you get to cheer at the screen or where the hero gets the girl at the end. This film has more in common with Saving Private Ryan than it does with, say, Die Hard. Granted, there are a few morons out there who won't get it. I was in the theater sitting in front of a bunch of guys who shouted and laughed at every grisly Somali death. And there are a lot of grisly Somali deaths. Wave upon wave these desperate and angry men, women, and children are mowed down as our soldiers frantically try to survive through the night against unbelievable opposition.

And that, in a nutshell, is the story. Sure, there are lots of specifics in the film; the two soldiers that get left behind and have to fight their way back, the armed vehicles that get lost because of imprecise intelligence. But the basic story is incredibly simple: a bunch of U.S. soldiers get caught in a battle with a whole bunch of the enemy. The problem is, you can't just film one battle and make it your whole movie. I mean, you can, but it's going to be hard drawing people in. You've got to have some kind of hook. The trend, of late, has been to create a fictional romance as that hook, and it has been met with limited success. In Titanic this tack worked big-time. People loved it. In Pearl Harbor, on the other hand, the love story was met with jeers. While that movie was moderately successful, the studio system views it as a failure. Luckily, director Ridley Scott chose to avoid the romance angle and goes a completely different route to hook the audience. Scott's hook has much more to do with the visual than it does with the story itself. All the fighting scenes are filmed up close and personal, giving the audience some idea of the confusion and panic that exists in such situations. I liken it, again, to Private Ryan, especially in the first twenty or so minutes of that movie. This technique is likely to really please some of the viewers, and really turn others off. As I said earlier, this movie is harrowing.

The largest complaint I think I had with this film is one that is somewhat inevitable given Scott's choice of technique in the storytelling. You just don't ever really get to know the characters. There is terrific acting by a fine cast; Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepherd and whole host of others. But, to be honest, with shaved heads and fatigues, they all pretty much look alike, and there are times when it's hard to tell who is shooting and who's been shot. I could say that this is probably what real war is like, but I think movies owe us a little more than straight reality. As it goes along, however, you're able to kind of identify people by their names or particular grimace, and you claw your way through it. What you are left with is not a dazed sort of, "Now, who was that again?" attitude, but a "Wow, I'm amazed at the whole lot of them." feel. This film is both a testament to American resolve and ability, and to the ultimate futility of armed conflict. It is both anti-war and pro-American, and strikes a very appropriate tone at this tumultuous period of our history. Grade: A-

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