The shadow of September 11 will not always hang over the movies, but as I watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down it seemed to be everywhere: an ominous column of smoke rising from a city skyline; people watching helplessly via video screens as a catastrophe unfolds before their eyes in real time; enemies striking an unexpected and terrible blow that seems to be as bad as anything can possibly be — followed by a second, equally terrible blow. Two helicopters down in the streets of Mogadishu; two towers down in the streets of Manhattan.
What is it that a film like this offers us in times like these? Understanding? Catharsis? Perspective? The words seem irrelevant. Black Hawk Down is the story of a disaster: an operation that began as a supposedly routine, 30-minute snatch-and-grab aimed at capturing high-ranking enemy officers, but spiraled out of control into a desperate 15-hour ground war merely to survive and escape. Some 120 American troops were engaged by thousands of Somali militia, civilians, even women and children — a whole city, really. It was the longest, largest firefight for American troops since Vietnam; eighteen Americans, and over 500 Somalis, were slain, and any number on both sides wounded.
A few subtitles explain briefly the reasons for the American presence in Somalia in 1993. They seem to be good reasons. The country was stricken by terrible famine, thousands of Somalis were dying of starvation, and U.N. food shipments were being routinely waylaid by warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who opposed U.N. involvement and sought to maintain his own power.
At the same time, the film suggests that American resolve wasn’t what it should have been: The Clinton administration initially alloted a mere three weeks for the military to restore order, and denied requests for armored vehicles and other ordnance.
We also gather that the enemy may have been underestimated. As the powerful Black Hawks swoop in low toward Mogadishu, we see a young Somali boy watching from a rooftop vantage point — then scrambling down with a phone in his hand, making a call that will bring out militia fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenade lauchers capable of crippling a Black Hawk.
The film hints, too, at the long-term consequences of the disaster: President Clinton, unwilling to risk further loss of American life, immediately called off the humanitarian mission and pulled the troops out of the ongoing Somalian conflict. Afterwards, the prospect of sending troops into other foreign trouble zones (e.g., Rwanda, Zaire, Bosnia) faced a chilly reception in Washington — and here again we can’t help seeing the specter of September 11, which brought home with devastating force the impossibility of withdrawing from the world’s problems.
But all of that in on the periphery here. Ridley Scott’s film — like the acclaimed newspaper serial story by Mark Bowden on which it is based — is essentially concerned with the events themselves, not with interpretation or commentary. It’s a study in logistics: Its concerns are what, where, and when, not so much who or why.
Black Hawk Down isn’t particularly interested with its subjects as characters in a film, which is all to the good. Like Steven Spielberg with Schindler’s List and Amistad, Scott respects his material by depicting it impersonally, with the focus on the event itself rather than some drama of irrelevant "characters" (cf. Titanic or Pearl Harbor).
In fact, Black Hawk Down is the kind of war picture one might have imagined Spielberg himself making, before he actually did make Saving Private Ryan, a film that begins with the anonymity of its famous opening battle sequence before morphing into a sentimental melodrama about characters. In a way, Black Hawk Down is the anti-Ryan: It begins with a lengthy, largely unnecessary prologue feebling attempting to establish one-dimensional characters, then kicks into high gear with the onset of the doomed mission. In my book, it’s a better balance, a purer sort of war picture.
When I reviewed Pearl Harbor, I observed that the big, bloated attack sequence at the film’s center was nearly twice as long as the opening sequence in Ryan, and expressed skepticism whether that kind of intense battle action could ever be sustained for much longer than the twenty or so minutes alloted in Spielberg’s film.
Now, having seen Black Hawk Down, I find that it can, if it has structure and clarity. In Scott’s hands, battle isn’t reduced to an exercise in mere chaos or an assemblage of violent incident, but comes as a series of problems to be solved, obstacles to be negotiated, complications to be dealt with. Watching events unfold, we have a basic sense of where people are in relation to one another, where they need to get to, and so on, which at any given moment seems to be all that matters.
Scott is a superb visual stylist, and his films are always interesting to look at (even though his last two, Gladiator and Hannibal, weren’t great films). When he shoots the omimous Black Hawks prowling the airspace above the rooftops from the point of view of militiamen running through buildings and down alleyways, it’s like watching great white sharks drifting over a coral reef while their prey skulk about amid the coral.
Though Scott perhaps wisely refrained from reproducing the most hauntingly familiar image from the action in Somalia — that of a dead American Ranger being dragged through the streets by jubilant Somalis — the images he creates are almost as devastating, and seem just as real.
Scott also finds moments of terrible humor in the ghastly slapstick of war: In one scene, a Ranger slips and falls as he exits a building — inadvertently ducking beneath a hail of bullets from an ambusher’s gun. The ambusher is a young boy. His gunfire finds another target: a Somali man standing on the other side of the doorway who, judging from the boy’s anguished reaction, may be the boy’s father.
Despite fleeting moments such as this, which briefly humanize the enemy, many critics have complained that the Somalis are little more than pop-up targets. Yet that’s precisely what what one Ranger told Bowden it was really like, comparing the enemy to "silhouettes at target practice." Others have wrung their hands over the vision of hundreds of black Africans being blown away by a crew of (predominantly) white Americans. Yet unless one wishes to argue that this particular event ought not to have been depicted in film — or that the screenplay ought to have imposed a kind of retroactive affirmative action on the soldiers — I fail to see exactly what is being said. Such objections seem to me as misguided as complaints about lack of "characterization" among the soldiers.
Even some of the clichéd dialogue, when there was room for it, had for me the ring of truth. When a dying soldier asked a comrade to deliver a message to his loved ones — prompting the inevitable, time-honored reply, "You’ll tell them yourself" — I couldn’t help feeling that this lie must actually be uttered on battlefields all the time.
The film inevitably omits vivid details from Mark Bowden’s story. On the first page of the Inquirer series we read that Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Harnett) went to Mass the morning of the botched operation, and uttered Hail Marys as his men began roping out of the helicopter onto the street below. Later we read about how, when one pilot was captured, the Somalis (fearful of tiny transmitters in his clothing) began to strip him, but were unable to work the unfamiliar plastic snaps on his gear, until the pilot helped them open them.
Yet the broad outlines of the story and even many specific details are here, straight out of Bowden. If Scott can’t include the whole wealth of detail Bowden brought to the story, he compensates with the greater visual and auditory immediacy of his medium, bringing us as close as possible to what those soldiers went through in that two-day period in October 1993. It’s a harrowing, unforgettable experience, one unlike any other war picture that has ever been made.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.