Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman coined the phrase: "War is Hell." With Black Hawk Down, director Ridley Scott updates that maxim in a modern-day context. Powerful and very often horrific, it’s a graphic tribute to the heroism and courage inspired by The Soldier’s Creed: "Leave no man behind." And as America finds itself entangled in a cave-by-cave search for Osama bin Laden, it also serves as a lesson (as if Vietnam didn’t) of what superior technology and firepower often mean when employed in third-world conflicts: absolutely nothing.
On the afternoon of October 3, 1993, UH-60 Blackhawk attack helicopters dropped a hundred elite American troops into a neighborhood in Mogadishu, Somalia. Their mission was to abduct several top lieutenants of Somalian warlord Mohamed Farrah Adid and return to base, deemed a quick surgical strike that would take about an hour. But by the next morning, after fifteen long and violent hours in a hostile city, two helicopters had been shot down, 18 American soldiers were dead, 73 more were wounded, and one had been carried off by an angry mob. Over 500 Somalis were killed. The incident was the longest sustained firefight involving American troops since the Vietnam War.
Ken Nolan’s script takes Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (originally a serialization in the Philadelphia Inquirer) and strips off most of the politics (admittedly complex and sordid) and the military strategy (in hindsight, ill-formed and hobbled by political higher-ups). The film focuses solely on one thing: showing the amazing lengths to which combat soldiers will go to save themselves and their fellow fighters. And in that context it’s a memorable paean to the human spirit.
Scott starts out with a shorthand approach, sketching out the Somalian political context in a short prelude and then introducing the large ensemble cast, which includes Josh Hartnett, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore and William Fichtner. The troops are shown pumped and ready to go into action, listening to rock music while they don their equipment, but leaving behind things like night vision goggles and canteens – after all, this is a short mission, and we’re the good guys, going in as the world’s police officers, right? The troops head for battle as cinematographer Slavomir Idziak shows the menacing black UH-60s in poetic swoops and Hans Zimmer’s score hums with energy. But something seems not quite right.
Once the troops are on the ground the mission turns into an instant drubbing. The Somalis are waiting and prepared, setting up roadblocks and attacking the Americans from all quarters. They’re firing from atop buildings, trucks, doorways, using a kitchen sink of ordinance – rifles, missiles, grenades. The film quickly takes on a ferocity that matches the D-Day invasion footage in Saving Private Ryan but with no letup, holding a punishing level of intensity for another two hours. It’s a deafening, gut-wrenching ride through a hostile and sulphurous Hades, filmed with a realism that looks like a documentary–hand-held shots a foot from the action and a "Skinny" (Somali militia) gun barrel around every corner.
As the fighting drags on and becomes more improvised, Scott makes even less effort to bring order from chaos. In many scenes the actors are unrecognizable due to their helmets and goggles, and as the action careens from one shell-pocked intersection to another the viewer soon feels as disoriented and paranoid as the Rangers on the ground must have been. And Scott unremittingly tops each horrific event with yet another; war is full of… surprises.
As the players become more anonymous, their acts of heroism become more commonplace. There are few big speeches or "Win one for the Gipper" moments, no flag-waving or strident jingoism. Just a bunch of young American kids in a strange land, scared and mad as hell that their buddy just caught an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) to the face, and they’re ready to get the hell out in any way possible.
The film – like the book – doesn’t deal much with the ideologies of the two sides in the battle, the ethics of why nations fight, or the factors that led to the mission’s casualties. It’s all about survival. A Ranger who survives the ordeal sums it up: "You’re not out there fighting for honor or glory or your country or your girl back home. It’s about the man next to you. That’s all it is." There’s no sense of triumph at the end – just exhaustion, relief, and somber reflection over lost comrades.
Film director Sam Fuller said that every honest war movie is inevitably anti-war, because if you show what really happens in combat no sane man or woman would lightly risk it.Violent, bloody and unflinchingly honest, Black Hawk Down glorifies not war, but the mere mortals who are sometimes tragically asked to wage it.
– Bob Aulert