“Combat in ‘Black’ and White”
by Scott Mantz

“Black Hawk Down”
Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore
Directed by Ridley Scott

Crisis in the hot zone! US soldiers fight for their lives in
“Black Hawk Down”

Hell hath no fury like a country in the midst of civil war.

Up until September 11, it was easy for Americans to maintain a false sense of security as they watched on CNN as third world countries thousands of miles way fell apart at the seams. As we all know, everything changed on that fateful day, which is why US armed forces now have more support than ever when it comes to intervening in international affairs that might pose a clear and present danger to the country. Now, as patriotic as that may sound, it doesn’t always mean that we’re in the right, and even if we are, it doesn’t always mean that detailed missions go as smoothly as planned.

“Black Hawk Down” powerfully depicts one such mission in a documentary-like fashion. Based on Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden’s book of the same name, the film recreates–with painstaking, horrific, and graphic detail–how one so-called “simple” mission went dangerously amok, leaving 18 Americans dead and 73 more badly injured. Coming hot off the heels of 2000’s Oscar-winning “Gladiator” and 2001’s critically-debated, but enormously successful “Hannibal,” director Ridley Scott turns in what just may be the most visually realized, realistic, and effective film of his career. Relentless, brutal, and hypnotically riveting, “Black Hawk Down” puts moviegoers directly in the line of fire in a way that few films ever have.

In 1993, Somalia was deep in the throes of economic, social, and political upheaval. The country’s top warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, was blocking shipments of food in order to maintain control, and with his power showing no signs of diminishing, the UN peacekeeping forces devised a plan to kidnap his closest and most trusted aides. On October 3, Major General William E. Garrison (Sam Shepard) deployed the Army’s highly-trained Rangers and Delta Forces to carry out their mission, but it fell apart almost immediately. With two state-of-the-art Black Hawk helicopters shot down, outnumbered, frantic, and exhausted US soldiers were left to fight for their lives. Suddenly, a simple, in-and-out mission dragged on for more than 15 hours, giving way to a new mission: Get the soldiers out, and leave no man behind.

There are few filmmakers who have such a firm grasp on their material quite like Ridley Scott, whose groundbreaking movies like “Alien” and “Blade Runner” continue to inspire countless other filmmakers. As it is, it’s only a matter of time before his Roman Empire opus “Gladiator”–which completely re-invented the swords-and-sandals epic–does the same. With “Black Hawk Down,” Scott shows no signs of losing his touch, and if anything, he displays even more control over a film that depicts a world that’s about as out of control as one could possibly get.

The film starts off with the mission debriefing and the introduction of the band of brothers who carry it out, but then “Black Hawk Down” turns into a no-holds-barred, edge-of-your-seat nail-biter for the rest of its two violent, punishing, and unforgiving hours. Try and imagine what would happen if the first 20 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” stretched on for an entire film, and there you have “Black Hawk Down.” There’s no time to breathe, there’s no time to catch up, and there’s nowhere to turn. And why? Because that’s war, and war is hell.

“Black Hawk Down” proves that in war, there’s no time for character development, and as a result, it’s hard to get a fix on who the soldiers are. In some ways, the camaraderie between the personnel resembles the camaraderie between the men of Easy Company in HBO’s excellent mini-series “Band of Brothers,” and for the most part, that approach is one of the strengths of the movie. There is an attempt to make an emotional impact through the fate of one of the wounded soldiers, but since most of the characters are nothing more than faces in a very chaotic crowd, the moment comes up surprisingly short.

“Black Hawk Down” is more about the combat than it is about the characters, yet there are still some incredible performances to be found. Josh Hartnett redeems his decent performance in one of the year’s biggest disappointments–last summer’s critical bomb “Pearl Harbor”–with a dedicated turn as the idealistic Sgt. Matt Eversmann. In addition, Tom Sizemore gives a powerful, commanding performance as Lt. Col. Danny McKnight, while Sam Shepard desperately tries to keep his cool as the Major General who must watch helplessly as the mission falls apart.

It’s hard not to watch “Black Hawk Down” without thinking about what US special forces might be going through in Afghanistan as we speak. In that sense, it was wise for Sony Pictures to move up it’s original release date from March 2002 to December 2001 (even if it was partly to vie for Oscar consideration). In addition, producer Jerry Bruckheimer deserves plenty of credit for taking such a radical departure from the normally crowd-pleasing, lowest-common-denominator fare that he’s best known for (he produced “Pearl Harbor”).

Moviegoers will undoubtedly leave the theater feeling pulverized, shell-shocked, and overwhelmed, but that’s precisely the point. Like I said, war is hell, and “Black Hawk Down” is one helluva movie.