January 02, 2002
Black Hawk Down If Ridley Scott and Francis Ford Coppola could somehow manage to produce offspring, I think it would be poetically appropriate that they have twins. One, let's call him Arnold, would grow up and produce masterpieces of cinema like Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Themla & Louise, and Blade Runner. The other twin, let's call him Danny, would be responsible for just dreck as Bram Stoker's Dracula or Hannibal. More than any other filmmakers, these two have a history of churning out material that is either very hot or very cold; classic or crap. Black Hawk Down is more Danny than Arnold. But then I should have seen that coming with Jerry Bruckheimer sitting in the producer's chair. I confess that I've only read about half of Mark Bowden's novel upon which the film is very closely based, but I have read all of his original Philedelphia Inquirer articles that inspired the book. I found both to be gripping, balls-out attempts to portray modern urban warfare in super-realistic terms without losing sight of the human implications of such conflict. Bowden repeatedly puts his reader in touch with the Somali participants of the events of October 3, 1993. We feel the pain of young men who watch their homes utterly destroyed, who clutch the corpses of their dead brothers. We even get repeated glimpses into the motivations and experiences of Mohamed Farrah Aidid's militia men who fought against the American soldiers, who helped drag their fallen bodies through the streets of Mogadishu. The result is a piece of investigative journalism that neither glorifies nor admonishes the actions of either side during that bloody afternoon. But no one can read Bowden's works without feeling a deep, boding sense of loss for the tragedy experienced by both sides.

Absolutely NONE of that makes it into the film. Oh there are scenes where we glimpse the heartache of loss: the selfless defense of Mike Durant's crashed Super 64, and the gut-wrenching agony experiences by Sgt. Eversman's chalk as they watch one of their brothers slowly bleed to death, powerless to help him. But noticeably missing is any similar presentation of Somali losses. The few Somalis that we do see much of are thuggish warlords who are little more than heavily armed gang bangers. There is no sense that some of these casualties of war were innocent passersby who got caught in the crossfire; that a lot of them were defending themselves from armed forces who were there to protect and help them because of horribly misleading propaganda given them by Aidid in order to drum up opposition to the UN mission.

Likewise missing from the film version are most of the instances where we saw American troops shooting into crowds of people who weren't involved in the conflict. Or the women who willingly allowed themselves to be human shields for armed militia men, knowing that the Americans were not supposed to shoot at them. Many of these horrors of war are noticably missing, replaced with several visual horrors a-la Saving Private Ryan. In fact, I got the distinct feeling that Black Hawk Down was trying to be a modern-era Ryan. It even had Tom Sizemore playing Tom Sizemore, just like SPR. I kept waiting for him to reach down, scoop up a handful of sand and rubble, and put it in a coffe tin labelled "Somalia."

Which leads me to the performances. Josh Hartnet delivered a pretty darn good portrayal of a young soldier who finds himself in combat command for the first time. Too bad he chose to follow it up with 40 Days and 40 Nights. Ewan McGregor delivers his most disappointing work since Nightwatch, and both he and fellow Brit Jason Isaacs are absolutely comical in their attempts at American accents (which I find odd, since McGregor at least has done it well before). And it's a good thing that Orlando Bloom got to kick so much ass in The Lord of the Rings, because he certainly "misses" his opportunity to do so in BHD. The only performance that really stood out to me was Eric Bana, who was extremely good as the solitary Delta Force fighting machine, Norm Hooten.

Don't get me wrong, Black Hawk Down is visually breathtaking. If you can imagine the tank sequence in Ryan extended out for over two hours, you begin to get the picture. The battle is fierce and offers a real sense of what these men endured over the course of that hellish day and night in Mogadishu. If you've read the book, you'll find many scenes and much dialogue repeated verbatum, and you man even find yourself with a high degree of anxiety when you KNOW that someone is about to be killed. It delivers, and is a solid action movie in its own right. But will benefit more from the current heightened sense of American patriotism than from its own merit. I can't help but wonder if it's not done on purpose to avoid any backlash from those who might accuse the filmmakers of being unpatriotic in such volatile times.

If you read the book, or if you are a big war movie fan, go see Black Hawk Down. If not, hang on and rent it when it hits DVD.
Posted by Mithrandir at 04:53 PM