BLACK HAWK DOWN (director: Ridley Scott; screenwriters: novel by Mark Bowden/Ken Nolan; cinematographer: Slawomir Idziak; editor: Pietro Scalia; music: Hans Zimmer; cast: Josh Hartnett (Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann), Ewan McGregor (Company Clerk John Grimes), Tom Sizemore (Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight), Eric Bana (Sergeant 1st Class Norm “Hoot” Hooten), William Fichtner (Master Sergeant Paul Howe), Ewen Bremner (Specialist Shawn Nelson), Sam Shepard (Major General Garrison), Kim Coates (Wex), Gabriel Casseus (Specialist Mike Kurth), Hugh Dancy (Sergeant 1st Class Kurt Schmid), Orlando Bloom (Pfc. Blackburn), Brendan Sexton III (Kowalewski), Johnny Strong (Shughart), Richard Tyson (Busch), Ron Eldard (Durant), Ioan Gruffudd (Beales), Thomas Guiry (Yurek), Charlie Hofheimer (Smith), Danny Hoch (Pilla), Jason Isaacs (Captain Steele), Zeljko Ivanek (Harrell), Glenn Morshower (Matthews), Jeremy Piven (Wolcott); Runtime: 144; Columbia; 2001)
“There is a story to be told here about the intrepid survivors and the terrorists who act against America — but it never got through in this bloody, chaotic and shrill propaganda film.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Ridley Scott (Gladiator/Hannibal) shoots a visually soothing, moody action pic about a true incident that left a black mark in American history and was quickly forgotten–the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters by rocket-propelled grenades and the perilous rescue effort of those soldiers stranded in teeming Mogadishu, Somalia, in the fall of 1993. The cliché-riddled screenplay of Black Hawk Down was written by Ken Nolan, and is adapted from the book by Mark Bowden entitled Battle of the Black Sea. Bowden, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, serialized the doomed Mogadishu story in 29-articles that appeared in the paper during November and December of 1997. The unsavory producer Jerry Bruckheimer specializes in making big-budget vacuous films that often prove to be popular, and here teams up with a director who is more interested in computer graphics and good photography than in getting to any depth in his films; therefore, making for a perfect match. Their pic is created not to ruffle any feathers, while the viewer is encouraged to relish the action shots as if participating in a mindless video game. For these two, compared to their other works, this one is an art film.
Mr. Scott carefully avoids the politics and racial issues of the film (there was only one black soldier Specialist Kurth (Gabriel Casseus) and his views were gung-ho like all the white soldiers who had no clue as to why they were there), and safely emphasizes instead the patriotic fervor and spirit of the young men in combat who became involved in a questionable mission that ended up being botched. One of the men, Staff Sgt. Eversmann (Hartnett), recently promoted to head a command team, is called an idealist as he says he’s here because he wants to make a difference and is shown in a serious light among the other fun-loving gung-ho troopers who mainly want to do their job, act macho and prove themselves in battle. Unfortunately the film had no soul and no emotional groundwork, and it thereby left no impression on me after all the gunsmoke cleared. It was hard to see anything in this pic except the following: the beautiful tan and bluish hues of a ravished Third World city as shot by the Polish cinematographer who once worked with the great Kieslowski, Slawomir Idziak (in place of Mogadishu, Rabat, Morocco was substituted for the location shots); choppers noisily buzzing around; lots of shootouts; white soldiers when downed being swarmed by a riotous black mob out for whitey’s blood; and, from time to time bland white soldiers giving pat speeches about why they are here. Why they were there was never made clear, and why their mission was needed was never adequately explained (though the film provided a crawl before and after the film explaining briefly the historical background of this incident and its results).
What this film accomplished was show some 100 brave Army Rangers in action surrounded by about 5,000 heavily armed Somalis, and how messy that long weekend day in October became for them on this doomed mission. There were 18 American soldiers killed and 70 others injured, and one American pilot taken prisoner but released 11 days later; and, there was one soldier taken by the Somali mob and dragged through the streets while his body was dismembered (the naked corpse of Master Sgt. Gary Gordon being dragged through the streets to be spat on by the very people he was here to help, is not even shown–which seems to be dishonest if you are trying to tell the true story no matter how gruesome it was). The pic also shows that maybe over hundred enemy Somalis were either killed or wounded. Shortly after this incident America unceremoniously withdrew from Somalia.
The U.S. got involved in Somalia for humanitarian reasons to feed the hungry affected by the current civil war which had killed 300,000 in this lawless society, on the urgings of President Bush who committed American support for the military to act on this non-military action before he left office. President Clinton kept the troops there, but became disillusioned at the attacks by the warlords on the military and on the food distribution centers. President Clinton failed to provide the military with enough firepower to ensure the mission would succeed in case anything went wrong, as his defense secretary, Les Aspen, was removed from office after the events of this catastrophe proved he was incompetent and responsible for the military being unprepared. These political leaders failed to tell the military commanders that we were no longer interested in military action; in fact, we were negotiating with our U. N. partners to pull out. The commanding general in Somalia, Maj. General Garrison (Shepherd), was never told this, and instead carried out a dangerous daylight mission in the crowded hostile market place in the hopes of capturing two top-lieutenants of the warlord Gen. Muhammad Farah Aidid. During this ill-fated mission, Garrison is back at the command center trying his best to keep the causalities down and get his boys back home through roadblocks and work out a plan to do this despite lack of coordination from his units. The U. N. forces fail to help him in time, claiming they weren’t informed of the mission. The Delta Forces, meanwhile, refuse to leave any of their own behind and volunteer to stay and fight alone, until a rescue team can come for them. This ended up being the longest continuous battle since the Vietnam war, as it was only supposed to last a half an hour but lasted from early Sunday into Monday.
The casting for the Delta Rangers — Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom, who are all foreigners, is a rather odd decision. When not ducking bullets, they seem most worried about getting their American accent right. That is something they never accomplish. Bloom turns out to be the gung-ho but inexperienced 18-year-old, just assigned to Sgt Eversmann’s unit, who falls out of the chopper on the mission and ruins the timing of this precision raid and sets in motion all the grief that will ensue.
Some of the soldiers that I can recall were (so many looked alike and appeared to be clones): Company Clerk Grimes (Ewan McGregor), who eagerly leaves his typing assignment for some combat action; Lt. Colonel McKnight (Tom Sizemore), the one in charge of the rescue ground troops and as a veteran counsels the younger soldiers; and Master Sergeant Howe (William Fichtner), who will act bravely even as he questions the officer’s military decisions he thinks are wrong. There was no character development for anyone in the cast, so it’s only through their actions that we can recognize these men.
There is a story to be told here about the intrepid survivors and the terrorists who act against America — but it never got through in this bloody, chaotic and shrill propaganda film. What I saw was a pic aimed for the sensational telling of the action that, nevertheless, wanted to say something in between all the shooting, but either didn’t have the guts or didn’t have the intellect to. All it could come up with to explain the war was a cliché quote from one of the soldiers: “It’s about the men next to you. That’s all it is.” Bravery for this filmmaker is only in the combat field.
REVIEWED ON 2/1/2002 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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