Black Hawk Down

“Black Hawk Down” is to entertainment what Rosanne is to song stylist. You don’t enter director Ridley Scott’s harrowing war drama looking to be entertained. It’s more of an experience, one that you won’t soon forget.

Filled with one gut wrenching moment after another, “Black Hawk Down” puts the audience right in the middle of hell, where director Scott and writer Ken Nolan ratchet up the heat to a point where it’s almost unbearable. “Black Hawn Down” is like a two-and-a-half hour version of the first twenty minutes of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

Audiences who were shocked and somewhat dismayed by Spielberg’s realistic portrayal of battle will find most of “Black Hawk Down” bewildering. Despite it’s frenetic pace and razor sharp editing, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by the carnage that fills the screen. This isn’t patriotic pabulum. It’s a decisive look at what happens when good intentions go horribly awry.

As armchair soldiers, most of us experience foreign wars through our television sets. Most of the images we see have been sanitized for our protection, because the truth of war is much uglier than the myth. Up until the release of Sam Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron” in 1977, war movies were more about waving the flag than getting down and dirty in the trenches.

“Black Hawk Down” not only attempts to tell the truth, it almost always succeeds. Except for the occasional cinematic shortcut, director Scott tells it like it is. He puts us right in the middle of ground zero, where we, like the soldiers, are forced to deal with the confusion and chaos that accompanies battle.

To most of us, Somalia isn’t really a place but a word in a headline or a sound bite. It’s hard enough to get a high school student to point out France on a world map, much less Somalia. To the Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers sent there on a humanitarian/peacekeeping missing in 1993, Somalia is very real indeed.

The American forces have arrived to make sure that food and supplies meant for the people of Somalia don’t fall into the hands of ruthless warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, whose tight reign over the region has left more than 300,000 dead. The mission: swoop down into a crowded marketplace in the capital city if Mogadishu and seize two of Aidid’s top accomplices. What should have been an easy in and out turns into a two-day nightmare for the American soldiers, who find themselves trapped behind enemy lines.

The mission begins without a hitch, but once they arrive at their target, the soldiers are faced with one obstacle after another. First a soldier falls from a helicopter. Then two helicopters are shot down. A rescue mission yields even more disaster, as the soldiers learn that the locals are more aggressive (and armed) than they bargained for.

Nolan’s script explores the mission from several characters, giving us a visceral viewpoint that we seldom see on the news. Josh Hartnett, so much more convincing here than in “Pearl Harbor,” plays Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann, a Ranger who has just been placed in command of his first unit. Ewan McGregor is Ranger Spec. Grimes, a desk clerk who is seeing combat for the first time. Tom Sizemore plays veteran soldier Lt. Col. Danny McKnight, the only one who suspects that they’re unprepared for the task at hand.

The Delta Force is well represented by Eric Bana as Sgt. First Class Hoot Gibson, who leads his team, including trained snipers Sgt. First Class Randy Shughart (Johnny Strong) and Master Sgt. Gary Gordon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), into the Lion’s Den. Unlike most war films, where the filmmakers feel the need to endear us to the characters before dropping them into harm’s way, Scott and Nolan avoid that emotional trapdoor. Instead, they immediately toss us into the middle of the action.

Along the way, we get a sense of who the characters are, but the film is more about what they do, which is survive. To that extent, “Black Hawk Down” makes us feel as desperate and disoriented as the participants.

Scott doesn’t wave flags, but “Black Hawk Down” is truly inspiring. It shows Americans going the distance not only to save their own, but the millions of innocent people they have come to protect. Nolan’s script examines the conflict, but doesn’t pander to the lowest common emotional denominator. With its vivid depiction of dismemberment, death and rivers of blood, anyone looking for a feel good movie like “Behind Enemy Lines” will be sorely disappointed.

Perhaps no director is better equipped to deal with this reality than Scott. Time and time again, Scott has proven himself as a director capable of creating believable illusion. It was nearly impossible not to become immersed in his futuristic world of “Bladerunner,” or the ancient arenas of “Gladiator.” Scott’s recreation of the events in Somalia are so accurate they become cinema verite.

Slawomir Idziak’s stunning cinematography looks and feels like real life, perfectly framing the gritty production design of Arthur Max. The precision editing of Pietro Scalia and the riveting music of Hans Zimmer contribute to the intense pace of the film.

Even though “Black Hawk Down” comes from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, it’s far removed from anything he has done before. The film is not popular entertainment, which makes it difficult to recommend it to everyone. It’s a film you have to want to see, but once you make that commitment, you won’t be disappointed.



Black Hawk Down captures war’s gritty realism


John Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, Sam Shepard, William Fichtner, Ron Eldard, Jeremy Piven, Orlando Bloom. Directed by Ridley Scott. 143 Minutes. Rated R.


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