Producer Jerry Bruckheimer may be known for his big-budget, over-the-top action-adventure movies like “Armageddon” and “Con Air,” but in his newest project, “Black Hawk Down,” he and director Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Hannibal,” “Gladiator”) have worked to recreate, in vivid and harrowing detail, an actual military event–the disastrous raid that US forces conducted under UN auspices in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, resulting in the deaths of eighteen American servicemen and involving the crash of two helicopters and a rescue effort that dragged on for more than eighteen hours. In an interview in Dallas, Bruckheimer, Scott and Mark Bowden, the journalist who wrote the best-selling book on which the film is based, emphasized the effort to achieve authenticity.
“I worked very hard to make everything I told in the book as accurate as I could possibly make it,” Bowden said. “The movie is extraordinarily faithful to the book. Very little happens in the course of this film that didn’t happen during the battle, that isn’t taken directly from either my book or from some of the research that the filmmakers did on their own. I’m flattered, frankly, by how faithful it is to the book, and I’m delighted.”
Bruckheimer, who acquired the rights to Bowden’s work and then attached Scott to the project, reversed the compliment. “Once you have a book that’s this accurate, you don’t want to go away from it,” he explained. “You want to try to condense as much as you can and put it on the screen. You have to do some condensing, but we didn’t want to try to tell a Hollywood tale, a big Hollywood movie. You know, I did that with ‘Pearl Harbor.’ We didn’t want to graft a love story onto it, things like that.”
Scott added: “The trick was not to try and dramatize it in a conventional manner, by giving all sorts of back story about who does what back home. We managed to eliminate all that because the event takes place on the eve of the event and ends as it ends, which is the day after.” He compared the result to Stanley Kubrick’s great World War I film, “Paths of Glory,” as a picture that presents, he said, “a very encapsulated view of war.” Bowden added: “What this film does is to present war in an uncompromisingly realistic fashion, and that’s a new sensibility. It shows what combat is really like.” Scott remarked, however, that the carnage depicted in the film, while often horrifying, is nonetheless muted. “We held back, we really held back,” he emphasized. “I could have gone much further. But there’s a moment when enough is enough.”
“Black Hawk Down” was shot on location in Morocco, and as part of its drive for authenticity it involved the participation of members of the American military, both as advisors and as on- screen performers. “Those same soldiers that you watch during the battle,” Bruckheimer noted, “are in Afghanistan today,” and Scott added that one helicopter pilot actually recreated the flight he’d made during the operation to rescue his fallen comrades. In striving to portray the complexity and confusion of the episode, Scott relied on planning that itself required a sort of military precision in fashioning a usable script, assembling a trusted crew and then preparing each sequence with rigorous care. He emphasized the importance of storyboarding to the process. “Storyboarding takes me into the movie,” he explained. “It’s the same way as good writers literally live a movie. On paper I live the scene, so when I walk onto the floor, I’ve already seen the scene, and I know what I need. And after that it’s really about my great team. You leave nothing to chance.”
The outcome, the trio observed, has impressed members of the original mission who have already seen it, and who seem grateful for the fervor with which the filmmakers sought to recapture the event. Bowden compared the mens’ reaction to those of family members eager to recall their loved ones when being interviewed for obituaries: “The act of remembering it, of writing it down, of distributing it so that people learn about it–and now this film–means a great deal to these young men: that it will be remembered, that it validates their experience and makes it important.” The same attitude, he added, seems to prevail among the relatives of those who died in the mission. Bowden spoke of Jim and Carol Smith, whose son was lost in the firefight; his death is portrayed in the film. When he invited the couple to join him at an upcoming screening, he warned them that it would be hard for them to watch. “The death of their son in this film is an extremely difficult, graphic moment,” he remarked. “And [Jim] said he and his wife realized it’ll be very difficult and painful, but they feel it’s really important that people know what happened. They’re very proud of their son. They’ve heard from other soldiers who’ve seen it that it’s an extremely accurate depiction of his final moments, as it is with just about everything else.”
Bruckheimer, who’d initiated the project and is now drawing unaccustomed critical praise for the result, acknowledged that to him, it was such reactions that were most gratifying. “We wanted to be as true to the incident [as we could],” he said. “And to honor those men who died, and the ones who fought so bravely in the battle. It’s a homage to them.”
“Black Hawk Down” is a Columbia Pictures release.