A line from Plato prefaces Black Hawk Down: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
We understand the contemporary significance of those words by the close of this remarkably arresting film from director Ridley Scott (Gladiator). This is a war movie stripped to the genre’s bare essentials: combat and raw, naked fear. It also provides a timely reminder that no battle, regardless of the justification, is fought without great cost to both sides.
Black Hawk Down is a difficult film to watch at times, and not just for the bloody realism of its battle sequences. It’s just as rough to watch soldiers, dispatched on a mission they don’t really comprehend, struggle futilely against daunting odds. The soldiers’ stories are secondary to the battle here, as Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer show their virtuosity in their craft and the spectacle. The result is a film obviously lacking in several noteworthy areas, but overwhelmingly compelling in many others.
The story concerns the infamous military mission to Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993, to capture two top lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The U.N.-sanctioned operation, expected to last no more than an hour, was botched. Instead, it became a 17-hour battle matching several hundred American soldiers against thousands of Somalis packing anything from sticks and stones to rocket launchers. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down as 18 Americans died and 73 were wounded in the longest sustained fighting for our military since the Vietnam War.
Ken Nolan’s screenplay shares as much as possible with the book upon which it is based—Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden’s gripping, densely layered account of the mission. Like Bowden’s journalistic prose, the film is spare and lean, concentrating on images and narrative while remarkably limiting the confusion that inevitability erupts from telling the story of such a misguided chapter in American military history.
It is, as Scott has described it, an anatomy of the military process, right down to the Rangers’ steadfast adherence to a code that allows no man—alive or dead—to be left behind. The film avoids the dozens of personal back-stories meticulously provided by Bowden, and while some viewers may complain about the absence of detailed characterization, there’s simply no room. In fact, the few times the film strays into earnest character development border on the mawkish. Scott quickly—and wisely—always returns the focus to the fighting.
When the shooting begins, the vÃ©ritÃ© echoes of the Normandy beach scenes in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan are impossible to ignore. But Scott puts his own spin on scenes that are no less mesmerizing. Using a combination of Scott’s confidently shaded, operatic style and the haphazard, hand-held images we’ve come to expect in such circumstances, Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak—a former Krzysztof Kieslowski collaborator—does remarkable work excelling in an unlikely job.
The performances are difficult to separate, since Scott essentially treats the soldiers (Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor are the biggest stars among them, with other familiar faces like Tom Sizemore and Ron Eldard dotting the landscape) as one collective protagonist. They were in it together, the film seems to say, and we’ll tell their story together.
It’s easy to pick apart the film’s shortcomings in storytelling and character development, but it’s more rewarding to focus on what Scott did correctly: film battle scenes that provide a grisly portrait of the insanity of war. The message or moral should be derived from the horror of what we see. Black Hawk Down is more than just frightening or entertaining. It’s a fully responsible depiction of a battle fought on shaky moral ground.
Black Hawk Down, Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore. Rated R. ***