Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, Ewen Bremner, Sam Shepard

MPAA Rating: R (for intense, realistic, graphic war violence, and for language)

Running Time: 2:24

Release Date: 12/28/01 (limited); 1/18/02 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The intentions of Black Hawk Down are quite clear. This is a film about modern combat. Itís about taking a look at how gruesome and chaotic war is, and it is certainly a viscerally draining film. In its scenes of battle, Black Hawk Down is a towering technical achievement, so much so that it ends up feeling like an exercise. Perhaps thatís the point, but it ultimately left me feeling cold. And no matter how evident the filmís intentions are, it is confused in its execution. Regardless of how much the film tries to deny it, war is all about politics, and film is an inherently subjective medium. Perhaps I would have been able to ignore these elements if the scenes in between the combat were not so comparatively timid. The film opens with this quote from Plato: "Only the dead have seen the end of war." From that, we would imagine that perhaps the films might occasionally ask "Why?" It doesnít.

Based on actual events documented in Mark Bowdenís novel, Black Hawk Down attempts to document the Battle of Mogadishu, which started as a mission to capture lieutenants of the Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. What should have taken half an hour ended up taking fifteen hours and leaving eighteen Americans and hundreds of Somalis dead. After the aforementioned Plato quotations, the film gives us a brief history of the reasoning behind the United Statesí presence in Somalia. On October 2, 1993, the opportunity to capture Aididís advisors presents itself, and Major General William Garrison (Sam Shepard) assembles troops to drop straight into the middle of hostile territory. Among them are Staff Sergeant Matt Eversman (Josh Hartnett), who is assigned to lead a team for the first time, Company Clerk John Grimes (Ewan McGregor), who has been pushing papers and making coffee until now, and Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore), a gung-ho commander in charge of a segment of ground troops.

After a relatively short exposition, the combat starts and very rarely lets up. These scenes capture the chaotic fervor of battle but still keep it understandable. Director Ridley Scott and cinematographer Slavomir Idziak keep the camera far enough away from the action so as to give a sense of the charactersí positions and allow us to decipher whatís actually happening. The violence is obviously high. Morbid images result. We see things like a man whose thumb is left dangling from the joint, another who finds and keeps a severed hand, and one soldierís attempt to clamp a broken artery in anotherís leg. On this level alone, the film is important as an unblinking look at the horrors of modern war. There are other small details, possibly unintentional, that are equally disquieting. As gunshots echo through the village, we hear the sound of a baby crying. At one point, the film cuts from a scene of American soldiers evacuating their casualties to a portrait of Somali forces doing the same.

In one exchange, a soldier says that once youíve actually gone into fighting "politics and all that... get thrown out the window." It seems that the movie believes this statement, but itís far too subjective to be a completely accurate and unbiased portrayal of war. Camera and editing tricks make sure we feel the impact of the death of the American soldiers, and while they are admittedly effective, they make the deaths of the Somalis seem arbitrary. A large group of Somali soldiers are wiped out in an air strike, and in times like this, the film feels like an action movie. Having Tom Sizemore walking around like John Wayne, bullets whizzing past his head, does not help much either. During the exposition, we learn that the mission is flawed from the start due to lack of proper insight from government bureaucrats. By the time the film is over, the military bureaucrats are made to look like heroes, even though they are quite similar to the government ones the film quietly condemns.

Strangely enough, though, itís the lack of connection to these characters that makes the film seem so distant. There are certainly plenty of candidates to relate to, but none of them are properly developed on their own terms. Hartnettís idealist or McGregorís unprepared soldier would be more than adequate, but apparently humanity was tossed aside with the politics. The performances are as accomplished as performances in movies like these can be. In scenes of combat, there is a sense of urgency from all of the players. Beyond those requirements, though, they are not given much more to work with.

Black Hawk Down has its share of flaws, and many of them would be far more damaging than in this instance, where they may actually be part of the filmís intentions. It all leads to a surprisingly anti-climactic finale, and I wonder if the film would have been more successful if the exposition had simply been eliminated. However, with all its faults, the importance of the scenes of combat make Black Hawk Down an experience that you wonít be able to shake too easily.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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