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War! Huh! What Is It Good For?
by Lucius Shepard
January 26, 2002

It's rather difficult to get a handle on what Ridley Scott intended with his latest film, Black Hawk Down. Obviously it's a picture that treats of war, but effective war films are grounded in a point of view; they have some ax to grind or a message to deliver, whereas Black Hawk eschews this notion in favor of what passes for an almost neutral documentary approach. It's as if Scott had in mind to show the modern soldier in action. Period. Characters are so minimally sketched, they become more-or-less interchangeable in the heat of action. This likely was an artistic choice on Scott's part—it seems he wants us to consider the soldiers as one face, a hero-type, instead of as individuals, and to this end he has cast actors who, with the exception of Tom Sizemore, are not immediately recognizable and whose identities are disguised by grime and fatigues and military haircuts. Occasionally the action stops and certain of the characters are provided the opportunity to express themselves, but these expressions are so uniformly tedious and clumsy, they serve only to blur further our understanding of these men. For the most part the men come across as brave yet arrogant, ignorant, and callously dismissive of the famine-and-disease-afflicted Somalis, whom they call "the skinnies." Perhaps this is the face of the modern soldier, but when these soldiers die, often horribly, it's hard to feel anything other than the most generic brand of sympathy.

The underlying purpose of the military operation that comprises the basic materials of the film, an operation that resulted in the deaths of eighteen elite soldiers, seventy-three wounded, and the shooting down of two Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu during this nation's dismal adventure in Somalia in the early 1990s, is glossed over, and we are unable, from what the film gives us, to make a full determination as to whether it was strictly a foolhardy exercise engendered by political pressures, or simply an ill-considered gamble. Nor are we afforded any real intelligence concerning the proximate cause of the disaster, the fall from the helicopter of a green eighteen-year-old soldier just arrived in Mogadishu that delayed the proceedings and allowed enemy forces to gather. Was his inclusion in the operation a mistake, and if so, then whose mistake was it? And what was the upshot of the operation, which was designed to kidnap several high-ranking aides to the warlord who controlled much of Mogadishu at the time, Muhammad Farrah Aideed? We learn from a written summary at the film's end that Aideed died several years after the fact, but the operation's futility—if, indeed, it was entirely futile—is not made clear. There is, in fact, almost no hint of moral stance or thematic dimension. No mention of the slaughter of Pakistani peacekeeping troops and the targeting of American soldiers that provoked the deployment of the Rangers who headed up the operation. No mention of the American helicopter bombardment of a house in Mogadishu immediately prior to the operation that influenced anti-Aideed elements of the Somali populace to join with him in a fury of anti-American aggression. No clue that it was Aideed's intent to shoot down an American helicopter and thus trap the American soldiers as they sought to rescue their brothers-in-arms. And not even a hint as to the skill and ferocity of the Somali militias, the morian, whom Aideed fueled with kat, a cocaine-like drug that caused them to be fearless. All facts whose inclusion would have added to the audience's understanding and involvement in the film.

As was definitely not the case with Scott's previous film, the ludicrously over-praised Gladiator, wherein battle and gladiatorial scenes were achieved using a superfluity of quick cuts and far too few establishing shots, Black Hawk's action sequences are well-managed, thanks due mainly—one would think—to the editor, Pietro Scalia. This is a good thing, because the movie is essentially one long action sequence. But as happens in many of Scott's films, his visual sensibility tends to overwhelm both characters and substance. In this instance, though he succeeds in evoking the ruin and decay of Mogadishu, he does so in such a lush, artfully framed manner, utilizing colored filters to the max, that the dying city is lent a surreal beauty it does not in actuality possess. Mogadishu (most of Somalia, for that matter), sun-bleached and treeless, has all the visual allure of a dead rattlesnake in a microwave oven. It's as if we're being asked to consider the unrelenting bloodshed and violence from the distancing perspective of a fashion photographer who has stumbled onto a news story and is blissfully shooting it while under the influence of mescaline. Although it is not essential that a film's setting be literally rendered in order to assist its story, in a film as stripped-down as Black Hawk, as devoid of story and character, this prettification of Somalia strikes me as illegitimate, as misleading and obfuscating as cosmetics on a corpse. It would have been far more effective if Scott had from time to time let the skeleton of the country show through in all its inglorious and unsightly rawness.

For comparison's sake, we might look to Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, arguably the greatest of all American war movies, which also had a large ensemble cast and dealt with a single military operation (albeit one of much larger scope) and contained gruesome violence. Malick's film was beautifully shot, but instead of prettying the battlefield, it juxtaposed the horror of battle with natural beauty, a contrast that accentuated both. Though it, too, stressed the universal dolor of men under fire and the insane acts of courage to which they are prone, it also succeeded in manifesting their individuality by means of a brilliantly orchestrated voiceover that carried the inner voices of the soldiers, both American and Japanese, living and dead, and by a number of exquisitely written and wonderfully crafted performances. Nick Nolte's ambitious colonel, Sean Penn's cynical sergeant, Elias Kotea's soulful captain, and Jim Caviezel's mystical mountain man—these among others are the pins upon which the fabric of the battle is stretched, both sustaining the tapestry and investing it with moral weight and human value. Of all the performances in Black Hawk, the only one that commands much attention is that of Eric Bana as an enigmatic Delta Force operative who seems to thrive on war. Bana, an Australian comic who made his debut in Anthony Dominick's outstanding Chopper, is an actor to watch, and we will next be watching him as Doctor Bruce Banner in Ang Lee's The Hulk. But his is the single individualistic note sounded in a chorus of desert-camo anonymity, and does little more than point up the facelessness of the other actors.

Still and all, compared to Scott's recent films, Black Hawk is a distinct step forward, yet it falls short of his early successes, Alien, Blade Runner, and The Duelists, all of which possessed strong story values that supported his atmospheric visuals. Though Black Hawk engages our eyes, our senses, it fails to engage our minds and emotions, and thus, ultimately, it becomes as futile an exercise as the military operation it seeks to depict.