Based on Mark Bowden's account, and subsequent book, of the UN forces attempt to capture a Somali warlord (the battle of Mogadishu), resulting in 'the most intensive close combat Americans had engaged in since the Vietnam war', Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott, still on a high from the success of Gladiator a year before, neatly divided audiences in two on release, with those that loved it for it's intense depiction of war against those that derided it for, what they believed, to be 'staged racism'. Kevin Olson, of the awesome Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies, (check out his 'revisiting 1999' posts; a brilliant account of cinema at the end of the last decade), takes on this 'expertly crafted action film' and wishes more people thought of it 'when they speak of Scott’s triumphs as a director.'
Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down is one of the most meticulous and masterful renditions of the classic war film formula. After about 30 minutes of exposition Scott drops the viewer in the middle of a war zone swirling with dirt, mud, and blood. It’s an intense experience that had many critics in 2001 crying foul. They claimed that Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer turned the Somali soldiers into faceless killers – blurs of black across the screen carrying automatic rifles. I think that’s unfair, though, as the film was pretty much dead on arrival as any war-themed film released post September 11th (Black Hawk Down came out a mere three months after the attacks) was going to be scrutinized unfairly; viewed through a super-serious lens. Somewhere along the way war films got the stigma of having to be message movies – I don’t think Scott or Bruckheimer are going for any big grandiose message, here; however, what they do accomplish is a damn fine action film filled with brilliantly staged action scenes.
Scott wastes no time with exposition as text on the screen informs the viewer of the situation and the time and date. As for the soldiers – we’re introduced to the primary characters thought the usual war film clichés. Perhaps this is where some of the critics take issue with the film: using such a serious subject as a backdrop for what essentially is The Rock or any other number of gung-ho Bruckheimer action films. You have your nerdy tech guy who gets thrown into combat (Ewen McGregor), you have your new recruit who’s eager to see action (Orlando Bloom), the wacky wise-cracking soldier (Jeremy Piven) , the calm superior officer (Tom Sizemore), and the disillusioned realist (Eric Bana). All of these soldiers are led into battle by the man in charge of it all, Garrison (the always grizzled Sam Shepard) who looks upon the battle from a war room full of televisions and telephones like he’s the coach of a football team, watching film, ready to call the next play. Their plan is to drop into Somalia and capture two top lieutenants of a renegade warlord.
Needless to say things don’t go so well with the operation, and on one hellish afternoon a Black Hawk helicopter goes down and the hundred plus soldiers are stranded in the middle of no man’s land. This is where it is upon the viewer, and which lens they choose to don, that decides whether or not this is an unsympathetic look at that horrible 24+ hours in Somalia, or whether or not it’s a finely tuned, and expertly crafted action film. I tend to side with the latter group.
Had Black Hawk Down been released prior to September 11th than I don’t think half of the critics are as harsh on the film as they were. Visually this is a stunning film – as is the case with most of Scott’s work – drenched in the blues that Scott loves to paint with. There’s also that kind of hyper-kinetic warfare footage that seemed fresh at the time. What makes it age well is the meticulous way Scott and his production designer Arthur Max have recreated the logistics of the gun battles. Every action sequence feels legitimate; an authentic way of being “in the moment”, instead of making the viewer sick with the usual herky-jerky camera tricks.
I can see where the detractors come from, though, as the Somali’s are relegated to nothing more than the 'faceless enemy'. However, the American soldiers are made unidentifiable, too, and I think that’s on purpose by Scott. Much like the recent HBO series "Generation Kill", these soldiers are known by last names, but really, when they are draped in camouflage and spout the same clichés they’ve heard from war films, they all become the same person. Perhaps this is what it’s like in a war?
What the film succeeds at is something that Scott has always had a handle on: visual poetry. Scott’s films have always been light on dialogue as a means for conveying emotions and heavy on the visual poetry; Black Hawk Down is no different. In fact, it’s the film that, at the time, I wish he would have been recognized for instead of the so-so and ultimately drab and boring 2000 Gladiator. Black Hawk Down is a more tightly wrought exercise of the action genre and trumps anything that Scott was praised for in Gladiator. It’s just a shame that not many people think of this film when they speak of Scott’s triumphs as a director.
Sure this isn’t the thrilling action film and morally challenging genre piece that David O. Russell’s Three Kings was, but then again not many war films are that good. Ken Nolan, working from the source material of Mark Bowden’s book, inevitably omitted some of the back story of the Somalia troops found in the book. There just isn’t the same space on screen that there is on the printed page to explain things away and fill in the blanks – Scott and Bruckheimer wanted to make an action film, so they axed some of the stuff that made the book so popular, but they created an intense war film that remains one of the truly great crafted action films of the 2000’s.
As a pure action, gung-ho-filmmaking-style type of war film Black Hawk Down is unparalleled: it has the patience, attention to detail, and the nuances -- in addition to the exhilarating and intense action sequences -- rarely found in this particular subgenre. I don’t think Scott or Bruckheimer were trying to win any sociological points, here, but what they do (big action) they do extremely well. It’s not a great film, but it’s an entertaining war film, expertly crafted; and that’s not something that should be looked down upon. I look forward to the day when we can stop thinking of war films as super-serious exercises, and filmmakers can feel comfortable making unapologetic, gung-ho war films like The Dirty Dozen or The Delta Force (this summer’s Inglorious Basterds is going to be in that vein, I have a feeling) without worrying about critics taking it down a peg for not being a politically correct social statement.