October 3, 1993 is a day few people have burned into their memory. However, director Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” (“BHD”) serves as a shocking reminder of the worst day the American military has endured since the Vietnam War – one that saw 19 American soldiers die and more than 70 others injured.
Unlike most other modern war movies, however, “BHD” doesn’t dilute the horrors of the day through extraneous plot lines. There is no cliched love story as in “Pearl Harbor” nor was the actual war masked by a ridiculous subplot as was the case in “Saving Private Ryan”; “BHD” is as close to staring war in the face as one is likely to ever witness in a movie theater – and it’s ugly.
The film is based on a disastrous U.S. Special Forces operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, the goal of which was to capture two top lieutenants of Mohamed Farrah Aidid, a Somali warlord. The entire operation was supposed to last 45 minutes – night vision goggles and other special equipment were left back at the U.S. base, as military officials supposed it to be a fairly simple mission.
When two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down, however, everything changes, and the U.S. forces find themselves caught in a battle that lasts more than 15 hours.
Scott’s decision to focus entirely on the fighting comes at a cost, as there is remarkably little character development. Yet the film ends up working well as the audience is left to consider the sacrifice of the soldiers as a group rather than the heroics of any one.
To this end, Tom Sizemore as Ranger Lt. Col. Danny McKnight, the leader of the convoy trying to find the fallen Black Hawks; Eric Bana as legendary Delta Force soldier Sgt. First Class “Hoot” Gibson and Sam Shepard as Ranger commander Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison all turn in fantastic performances.
The same cannot be said for Josh Hartnett as Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann, a young Army Ranger thrown into a position of command; or Ewan McGregor as Ranger Spec. Grimes, a desk jockey forced into action. Both try to differentiate their characters and, as a result, one can’t help but wonder how two actors got into what otherwise feels like an actual battle. It is difficult to see a Ranger sharing Eversmann’s annoying idealism about war, especially once bullets start flying. Grimes’ obsession with brewing coffee is without a doubt the film’s most ridiculous gimmick.
The camerawork and editing of “BHD” are every bit as fantastic as the acting (again, excluding Hartnett and McGregor). In all, the film can only be described as the first half-hour of “Saving Private Ryan” stretched over 100 minutes. The audience might not want to see a soldier who is missing the lower half of his body being dragged to safety, but the film continuously forces these images upon the viewer.
Yet, despite the brilliant, non-judgmental look at the operation, the viewer walks away from the film feeling like something was missing. The glaring weakness of the film is that it makes no significant effort to go into the underlying issues that caused the events in Mogadishu or that arose out of them.
“BHD” begins by telling us that civil war in Somalia has led to starvation, but that the people of Somalia resent our presence in the region because “it’s not our war.” But with Somalia as a very possible next target for America’s current war on terror, the viewer wishes for more information. Why are they fighting? How have outside influences affected the situation? Why are the U.S. and U.N. in Somalia if they are not willing to engage hostile forces who slaughter innocent civilians in clear view of an American helicopter?
Further, the movie also fails to address the ramifications of the 15-hour battle in Mogadishu. The Special Forces were denied support from an AC-130 gunship, which has since become a cornerstone of our operations in Afghanistan. What other steps weren’t taken that could have prevented such a disaster? The film also fails to fully investigate the role of the United Nations. It has been suggested that the slow response of the bureaucratic U.N. contributed to the disaster, yet “BHD” makes no effort to weigh in on the matter.
The current situation in Somalia is a disgusting one, and America will eventually be forced to face it again. As a result, the film could have become a powerful piece if it had wanted to, yet ultimately it finds no such initiative.
In the end, “BHD” is a fantastic film about the brutality of war and the heroism of our special forces. Its sophisticated handling of these issues makes watching it a completely enjoyable experience, but its failure to go any deeper into the plot’s background keeps it from living up to its full potential.