' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Black Hawk Down

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My Great Movies: Black Hawk Down

A group of Army Rangers idle around the base on the eve of what would turn into the catastrophic Battle of Mogadishu, chronicled in Mark Bowden's book "Black Hawk Down", the basis for Ridley Scott's film from 2001, and a soldier says to Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett): "I don't know about you but I was trained to fight." Eversmann replies: "I think I was trained to make a difference." The line sounds corny, and it is because the other soldiers chuckle, chide Eversmann as an "idealist", and even Eversmann manages to grin at himself.

Much later in the film, in the midst of the battle, after one black hawk helicopter has already been shot down by the enemy, a second American chopper is hit by a rocket propelled grenade and slams into the ground on the opposite side of the city meaning that a second rescue mission comprised of soldiers already attending to the first rescue mission will have to wade back through hostile territory. The film shows us a shot of the mission commander, General William Garrison (Sam Shepherd), back at base, his face rife with disbelieving terror. At this moment you realize that making a difference amounts, essentially, to jack squat.

In the wake of both "Green Zone" and the Oscar run of "The Hurt Locker" I turned to perhaps my favorite of all war movies, one helmed by Ridley Scott and produced by a man whose pedigree I have lambasted a time or two, Jerry Bruckheimer, proving that so long as the product is quality I will respect it. ("Black Hawk Down" should have won Best Picture. Of course, it should have been nominated first.) The basics of the real life mission were this: A U.S. Special Operations Force was charged with capturing the foreign minister and top political advisor of the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. However, at the onset of the engagement Private Todd Blackburn (Orlando Bloom) was seriously injured when he fell from a Black Hawk helicopter while fast roping, setting off a chain reaction of events, including the shooting down of the two choppers, giving the book and film their titles, as American soldiers fought to evacuate the wounded and found themselves in a furious firefight with local militia that lasted throughout the night before a large task force came to their aid the following morning. 18 American soldiers lost their lives, 73 were wounded and while reports vary wildly on Somali militia casualties Bowden's book estimates more than 700 died.

The film's 30 minute first act is conventional. We get to know the soldiers - kind of, as they are sketched briefly and broadly. Specialist Grimes (Ewan McGregor) is a desk jockey who pontificates on the finer points of making coffee and yearns to see action until, of course, he gets to see action. In the brief conversation between Sgt. First Class Sanderson (William Fichtner), of Delta Force, and Captain Steele (Jason Isaacs), of the Rangers, we sense dischord between the two groups. Tom Sizemore's Danny McKnight is your typical laconic Colonel who will eventually make like a modern day William Prescott at Bunker Hill and casually stroll about the battlefield with no fear even as the bullets buzz all around him.

The politics of the mission are also inevitably addressed. A gun runner (George Harris) supplying weapons to the enemy is captured to, in turn, assist in capturing the two men the military want. He lectures General Garrison ("This is our war, not yours") and Garrison lectures him back ("That's not war - that's genocide") while other soldiers reference belief in "recruitment posters" and the notion of either helping Somalia or watching "a country destroy itself on CNN."

In fact, the scenes are conventional only on the surface and work to set up the film's primary theme. Once they have concluded and the logistics for the coming battle have been laid out, as the men wait, there is a monumental exchange between Eversmann and Sgt. First Class "Hoot" Gibson (Eric Bana, exemplary ensemble work, standing out but never standing above) that draws the line in the sand.

Eversmann: "You know, it's kind of funny. Beautiful beach, beautiful sun. Could almost be a nice place to visit."
Hoot: "Almost."
Eversmann: "You don't think we should be here?"
Hoot: "What I think? Don't really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit goes right out the window."

And from that moment forward, for the remainder of the film's running time, politics and all that shit really does go right out the window. From that moment forward, "Black Hawk Down" transforms into an unrelenting assault on the viewer's nerves and ears, machine gun fire encompassing the soundtrack for what seems like the duration (and take time to consider the almost amazing absence of the shaking camera). It is difficult to grasp and almost impossible to stomach, admittedly, as Scott does not shy away from serving up frequent bursts of frightening violence and indulging in what now seems like the standard bullet-excavated-from-the-body sequence. Most telling is the initial American casualty - tragic, of course, but the way in which Hoot instantly and matter-of-factly declares "he's dead" is simply the situation. Get on with it or you'll be dead, too.

The "primary objective" having been lost, as Garrison states, it is an 18 hour rescue operation, a wrenching war of will, that exhausts the viewer as much as the characters onscreen. As the stranded soldiers wait out the night in hostile territory for a slow-developing rescue it reaches the point where, as the Somali enemies ferret out their position, it gets to be almost too much, to have gone on too long, and I can only imagine the viewer's feeling mirrors the feeling of those troops in real life - my God, this needs to be over. It's hard to watch, but also hard to shake. As is the sequence of the battered men finally making their way back to the safe zone. The shot of the teeming Somalians lining each side of the road, cheering them on, may seem cliched and corny at first until you consider the exhausted faces of the American men as they pass expressing only one thought: "Please just get the hell out of our way." Certainly I wish the movie could have ended a scene or two earlier (then again, it also doesn't end with a shot of Old Glory waving in the wind), the only time post-first half-hour the film seems determined to "explain". But did some want more "explaining"?

"(W)hat were they doing in Somalia in the first place?" asks Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "Why did an entire city seem to rise up in hatred against them? What purpose did their bravery serve?" Upon the film's release one of its actors, Brendan Sexton, publicly attacked the film, claiming the final product was altered from its original script which "In certain scenes, U.S. soldiers...were asking whether the U.S. should be there, how effective the U.S. military presence was, and why the U.S. was targeting one specific warlord in Somalia, Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid." Sexton's entire take on the situation in Somalia and the American military's role is very thoughtful. But these ideas have nothing to do with what drives "Black Hawk Down".

The film's aim is not to comment on either the civil war in Somalia nor on the United State's decision to become involved. It's lone comment is that once we do become involved this is what can happen. Wars are fought for all sorts of reasons - often political, often misguided, often both - but whatever those reasons may be once the choice has been made it is the troops who are put in harm's way and the potential for being subjected to a nightmare like the Battle of Mogadishu is always present. If someone wants to rail for or against war that is what they need to remember. No film that has ever preached these ideas openly with on-the-nose dialogue has said it near as well as "Black Hawk Down".

Maybe this thought is best expressed in Sizemore's Colonel McKnight whose convoy of humvees first rounds up the prisoners before becoming enlisted in assisting in the rescue of the downed chopper, an exercise that goes spectacularly wrong as they are ceaselessly attacked. The mission commanders, circling Mogadishu high above in a helicopter of their own, guide the convoy below to no avail. "You don't understand. It's road block after road block." Their fancy computer maps know which way to go but the reality of the situation - which they can't see and do not understand anywhere near as well as they assume - is far different.

Back near the beginning, at the conclusion of the mission briefing, these two mission commanders notice Colonel McKnight smiling, cynically, to himself and wonder if there is something about the plan the Colonel does not like, leading McKnight to give a long list of potential problems. "Life's imperfect," says one commander. "Yeah, for you circling above it at five hundred feet, it's imperfect," replies McKnight. "Down on the street, it's unforgiving."


Castor said...

One of my favorite movie out there, and this shows why Ridley Scott is one of Hollywood's most respected director. The film leaves the politics at the door unlike so many current war films. The character aren't developed excessively which is great because the movie is not a character study but a recollection of what happened on that day. Finally, the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is also a feast for the ears.

Wretched Genius said...

Everything about this event sounds cool. The mission was part of an overall operation called Operation Gothic Serpent, the Somali name for the battle is Day Of The Rangers, and the alternate US name for it is The Battle Of The Black Sea.

Someday when you end up with an HDTV and a Blu-ray player, be sure to pick this up. It's one of the better looking HD movies, and even looks better than it did on the big screen (or at least on the Cobblestone's big screen, the quality of which is up for debate).

Nick Prigge said...

It always astounds me how so many film critics go after overt politics in war movies and then a war movie that doesn't overly address politics comes along and the first complaint is "Where are the politics?" No one can ever be happy.

And, yes, I really need to get on the HD bandwagon. Someday....

oliveobrien1978 said...

Loved this film too. Remember when I went to see it in the cinema and had never heard of it over on this side of the pond! But, was really taken aback at how great it was. Still think The Hurt Locker was better though. www.movienewsfirst.com

Unknown said...

“That's not a war Mr. Atto. That’s genocide.” What those people in Somalia had to deal with every second of their life is absolutely heart wrenching, not even knowing if they were even gonna make it through day because their situations were so tough. My heart goes out to all the victims. No one has the right to take another person’s life. And the violence proves nothing but the degradation of humanity.

Recently I saw this movie, Attack on Darfur, at the NY film festival and realize that Darfur needs as much attention as it can possibly get. I myself had no idea how bad it was until I saw this movie which is a very real portrayal of the horror going on there. Even some of the actors are actual people from Darfur reenacting their actual raping and torturing. I cried so hard, but I'm glad I saw it cause it really opened my eyes to what's going there.