“Senseless slaughter” — these two words came to mind after I sat for two-and-a-half hours in the dark watching a vague tale of the U.S. Army’s finest crash into what might be the longest sustained siege of graphic military violence ever sprayed and splattered on the big screen.
This was no Mission: Impossible. It was simple: Combine the might of four of the U.S. armed services’ most highly trained elite forces — the Army’s Ranger Regiment, Delta Force, Combat Search and Rescue and Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), with a few members of the Navy’s Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) special forces branch. Then, have them literally drop in on a gathering of ruling Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s Habr Gidr clan, snatch and grab two of his lieutenants and be home for chow. With 19 high-tech aircraft (featuring the UH60 Black Hawk Helicopters), 12 vehicles and around 160 men, the estimated duration of the mission was less than an hour. Only 18 hours later, two Black Hawks — symbols of the U.S. Army’s mythical invincibility — were down, prey to the rocket-propelled grenades of the Somali National Alliance, the Habr Gidr’s political-military arm. More than 500 Somalis and 18 American military men were dead.
Novice screenwriter Ken Nolan and veteran Steve Zaillian (Hannibal) keep in almost every bullet and all but the goriest moments of journalist Mark Bowden’s best-selling account (also titled Black Hawk Down) of a 1993 U.S. special operations mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, gone catastrophically wrong. But in packing more than 400 pages of events into a 144-minute plot, they leave out things they seem to have thought they didn’t need: They merely sketch the political background of the situation, the Somalis’ viewpoint and their cast of characters.
Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Hannibal) drags us into the firefight, commandeering our eyes and ears. His authentic battle images may catch your breath and trigger your adrenal glands, but this isn’t the typical Jerry Bruckheimer-produced bullet- and explosion-powered amusement-park ride shot to thrill by action director Michael Bay. This ain’t no Armageddon; this ain’t no Pearl Harbor; this ain’t no foolin’ around. Though both Bay and Scott cut their cinematic teeth on TV commercials, Scott has developed into a serious artist, while Bay manufactures high-gloss pulp melodramas.
But if you look behind Scott’s authentic re-creation of late-20th century American battle, Black Hawk Down is just Custer’s Last Stand with the happier ending of a Pyhrric victory: The American forces accomplish their objective, just at a ridiculously tragic cost. Scott doesn’t paint his Indians, the Somalis, as cartoonishly evil as Bay’s Japanese in Pearl Harbor. He breaks the colonialist tradition of Western military melodrama by giving faces to even the nameless enemy mobs.
But Black Hawk Down leaves out or distorts the web of politics between the United Nations, the United States and the Somali clans — and the Somali viewpoint of the Americans as uninvited cowboys installed to ram democracy and Christianity down their throats that balances and deepens Bowden’s book. We don’t see the U.N.-sponsored air strike that massacred a large number of Somali clan leaders, SOAR helicopters buzzing Mogadishu for fun, blowing the tin roofs off homes and the dresses off the women, or any Somalis with speaking parts who aren’t members of Aidid’s clan. Scott sutures us behind the eyes of the American troops, with contextual info on a need-to-know basis, and it seems we don’t need to know.
We never find out much about our heroes either. Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett, Pearl Harbor) is an ingenuous idealist on his first command. Company clerk John Grimes (Ewan McGregor light years from The Phantom Menace’s Obi-Wan Kenobi) has been behind a desk so long he’s perfected the art of coffee-making. Capt. Mike Steele (Jason Issacs, The Patriot) is a Christian tight-ass. Like the elite Delta Force’s renegade loose cannons, Dirty Harrys in flak jackets, these are more types than characters. Ironically, they only seem to come truly alive when bullets rip open their flesh.
Black Hawk Down is a bitter feast of flying metal, fire, blood, sweat and fears. But if you’re looking for more than a two-hour experience of military violence, it may go down hard and leave you empty.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at firstname.lastname@example.org.