With the advent of digital effects and digital sound, war on film has entered a new frontier of realism. The filmmaker's impulse with these new toys seems to be to expand the carnage to punishing lengths which ratchet up the intensity and envelop the viewer in the protracted barrage of sight and sound. Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and subsequent cable miniseries Band of Brothers set a new standard in this regard. Ridley Scott brings his considerable filmmaking chops to the task with Black Hawk Down, a harrowing recreation of 1993's disasterous U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, which left 18 American soldiers dead and another 73 wounded. While the craft of the film is undeniable, the question may arise: is this in any sense entertainment, and if so, should it be?
To producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who takes these matters very seriously, this is entertainment. So too for Scott, though he clearly has more complicated feelings about the matter (he has referred to the film as pro-military and anti-war). Black Hawk Down takes the tack of providing a minimum of context to the battle, and a maximum of "you are there" feel to the vigorous war scenes which make up the majority of the film.
Scott opens with an effectively concise verbal and visual summation of the events leading up to October 1993, when the U.N. peacekeeping force, U.S. Army Rangers, and elite Delta Force watched and waited as Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid directed his clan to starve their enemies, including innocent families. Amid failing efforts to provide famine relief, a military action was devised to capture two of Aidid's lieutenants. Scott offers a simple exchange between Major General William F. Garrison and Osman Atto to clarify the stakes and put a face on the enemy (the Somali populace otherwise remains frustratingly voiceless), followed by a quick sweep through the military encampment, enough to pick up a few faces and details. The rest is the real whirlwind: a blow-by-blow recreation of the surgical action which fatally ballooned into a nightmarish 15-hour rescue mission of American soldiers pinned in by hostile Somalis. Though the goal of the mission was achieved, this detail becomes lost in the chaotic scramble to "leave no man behind."
This enaction of this credo (and the fortuitous timing of the film in the wake of September 11th) give the film its sense of patriotism and tragic celebration of military honor. Nevertheless, the film (like the book by Mark Bowden which inspired it) alludes to the hubris which allowed the incident to take place. Scott finds pockets of absurdity and humanity in incident, like the moment when a group of lost soldiers stares dumbfounded at empty streets and another which documents a doomed, hung-out-to-dry soldier's approach to spending his last moments. With a tremendous assist by director of photography Slavomir Idziak, Scott finds dark beauty in the varyingly bleak and saturated tones of the exotic conflict.
For better or worse, the screenplay (by Ken Nolan and Steven Zaillian) chooses not to dwell on establishing character. Audiences may likely be confused or numbed by the stream of suffering and dying soldiers, but the film also benefits in a way from this ruthless narrative efficiency, avoiding the "this guy's dead meat" cliches. These "anonymous" soldiers, embodied by a crack ensemble, include Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, and perhaps most stunningly, the young English actor Orlando Bloom, unrecognizable from his stint as the elf Legolas in The Lord of the Rings.
The film ends with an unconvincing burst of sentiment that the rest of the film avoids. That the politics remain mostly murky and ambiguous is perhaps for the best, though letting the action speak mostly for itself has its disadvantages. Either way, Black Hawk Down is likely to provoke thought and sure to disturb.