Anyone who felt that the twenty-minute inundation in combat at the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) was insufficient is directed to Ridley Scott’s new film, an account of the disastrous 1993 raid on associates of Somalian warlord Mohammad Aidid in Mogadishu that left eighteen Americans dead and quickly led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from that impoverished, anarchic country. Nearly two-thirds of “Black Hawk Down,” based on Mark Bowden’s well-received book, is devoted to a determinedly realistic, often gruesomely graphic recreation of the ill-fated expedition, which involved scores of armored vehicles and helicopters, two of which were brought down by hostile forces and their crews attacked. This central segment of the picture is a perfect showcase for Scott’s technical skill; one might complain that the geography of the streets in which the battle is fought isn’t made clear, but the audience confusion can be defended as a reflection of the muddle and uncertainty in which the troops undoubtedly found themselves. As a cinematic exercise it’s breathtakingly brilliant; as drama, however, it’s not nearly so successful.
The film falls easily into three basic parts. Following a series of printed titles giving the general historical background, the narrative proceeds to a forty-minute section introducing the American presence, headed by grimly determined Maj. Gen. William Garrison (Sam Shepard, putting his iconic presence to good use). Among the men under his command the most recognizable are Ranger Sgt. Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett, looking even buffer than in “Pearl Harbor”–he used to be a lanky, rather emaciated fellow), who’s suddenly thrust into a position of leadership; Ranger Lt. Col. Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore), a hardened, no-nonsense veteran; Sgt. FC Jeff Sanderson (William Fichtner), a member of the elite Delta Force; Ranger Spec. Grimes (Ewan McGregor), who finally fulfills his ambition to leave his desk job for a combat stint; and helicopter Warrant Officer Mike Durant (Ron Eldard). Others among the troops are played by Eric Bana, Ewen Bremner, Gabriel Casseus, Kim Coates, and Hugh Dancy, but to be honest none of them register a great deal of individuality. After some generic macho banter (Eversmann is clearly the most sensitive, thoughtful of the bunch), the operation begins; the sight of the copters sweeping across the landscape recalls the famous Robert Duvall sequence in “Apocalypse Now,” and the descent of the forces on ropes generates considerable tension. Soon, however, the operation goes awry: eventually two of the Black Hawks are downed, and the men must make their way by foot and in armored vehicles to try to rescue their crews while masses of armed men and boys threaten them each step of the way. Periodically the vantage point switches to Garrison watching events unfold on a battery of television screens (Shepard does the stern paternal bit, chewing his lip concernedly) and to the operation commanders reporting in from their still-circling helicopters, with occasional allusions to the difficulty in getting other UN forces to assist in extracting the soldiers from the hostile area of the city. For the most part, however, the action follows various pockets of men as they try to defend themselves and their comrades from the locals’ assault while collecting the fallen and working their way back to safety. After nearly a hundred grueling minutes have passed–grueling for both the endangered troops and for the audience vicariously feeling their horror–the survivors wend their way through an impressionistic cloud of dust (Scott’s visual signature, of course) into a sports stadium, where Pakistani allies await them with glasses of tea. A brief epilogue and concluding printed titles end the narrative.
“Black Hawk Down” certainly captures the punishing nature of combat as well as virtually any film ever has, and one has to admire the technical virtuosity of the recreation–the location work in Morocco and Arthur Max’s production design are quite spectacular. The special effects work is equally fine, and Slawomir Idziak’s camerawork is frequently exquisite. On the purely visual level, the film is a very impressive achievement. (On the sonic one, it’s less so: the dialogue is mostly banal, and although the explosions and shots are crystal clear, Hans Zimmer’s score is characteristically obvious.)
Yet dramatically it never achieves the intensity or emotional impact of the greatest war pictures. The lack of personality in the characters is particularly telling; all the major figures have more than a whiff of cardboard about them, and while a few stand out by reason of the familiarity of the actors playing them (Hartnett, Sizemore, Eldard), most seem virtually interchangeable. (McGregor, for example, fades pretty much into the background, and Bana–so overwhelming in “Chopper,” a title peculiarly complementary to this one–is basically anonymous here.) It’s not surprising under these circumstances that none of the actors make much of an impression. Ultimately the emphasis on hardware over humanity lends the film a clinical tone that keeps us at a distance even while it immerses us in the action. The effect is especially incongruous given the lesson that the film finally offers, which isn’t political or ideological but deeply personal: men fight, we’re told, not for some abstract principle, or even for their country, but for their comrades in arms–that’s why they’ll confront the harshest hell to brings their buddies back, alive or dead. The curious thing is that one leaves “Black Hawk Down” drained, but not so much from attachment to the men we follow through the streets of Mogadishu as from the purely visceral experience of bombs and bullets. In that way it’s probably an accurate reflection of Bowden’s book, but despite the carnage, the approach makes for an oddly bloodless movie.