Film Review: Black Hawk Down

Ridley Scott tries his hand at the war movie thing

With Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer have teamed up to direct and produce a suitably shallow and macho military romp for the post-September 11th movie-going audience.

Josh Hartnett in Black Hawk DownStarring Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor and Tom Sizemore, the action is set over a period of 24 hours in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu in October 1993. From a secure airport base outside the city, the US military send in elite Delta and Ranger forces to capture key lieutenants of Mohammad Farah Aideed, a powerful warlord who is starving his people to death.

The men are kidnapped but two helicopters are shot down and most of the troops become surrounded by thousands of fanatical militiamen. The Americans are eventually rescued, but not before 19 of them are killed from a variety of gruesome wounds.

The fighting is gritty and realistic, but in the final analysis there is little else to this film. You can have too much of a good thing and Black Hawk Down is what happens when you take the ?good bits? from Saving Private Ryan and make an entire movie from them. It's not exactly boring, but it's hard to escape the desire for ?something? to happen.

Of the principal leads, Hartnett gives the impression that he couldn't lead a boy-band out of a studio let alone a Special Forces unit out of enemy territory, while McGregor is very watchable, albeit with an unconvincing American accent. Tom Sizemore is his usual dependable self as a grizzled veteran who has an aversion to ducking gunfire.

Thankfully, there are no overly heroic sacrifices or acts of valour in this film. However, the differences between the good guys and the bad guys become evident in their deaths, of which there are plenty. The Americans cling to family photos, and beg their comrades to tell their parents/wife they loved them before succumbing in suitably dramatic fashion. The Somalis are butchered in their thousands, nice and clean, one shot kills all, in true videogame tradition.

And even if American heroics are more understated than in most Hollywood war movies, the depiction of the Somalis undoes this good work. The only locals actually to speak are greedy, ruthless and bloodthirsty; leaders or members of the militia forces. The offering of a cigarette to a captured US soldier is the extent of the humanisation of the Somalis.

We are given no solid reason why the mission failed so spectacularly. The native informer is portrayed as unsure and untrustworthy, but this alone should not have doomed the raid. As the convoy of Hummers and their Black Hawk air support leaves the airport, we see a Somalian child using a cellular phone to warn the warlords in the city of their advance.

So was this it? A kid with a mobile was responsible for the bloody collapse of the American operation? If so, could the commandos not have left their base more discreetly and rendezvous somewhere en route to the target? We don't know the answers to any of these questions because the film simply ignores them.

And on an even more fundamental level, what were the Americans doing there in the first place? Scott and Bruckheimer deem a few on-screen captions during the opening sequence to be sufficient, but it's an issue that would deserve a proper explanation in a serious screen treatment.

The decidedly un-American lack of mawkish sentiment is eventually abandoned towards the end, as we get a load of tosh about saying a prayer for Daddy, and how no one wants to be heroes, sometimes it just turns out that way, blah blah blah. You could see Bruckheimer itching to get that bit in.

As the final credits roll, the 19 American fatalities are listed. The faceless nature of the Somalis is confirmed with a caption acknowledging the deaths of 1000 locals during the raid. Needless to say none of them warrant a personal mention. This death toll was obviously given to the filmmakers by the US military advisors, as it is considerably less than a CIA estimate of 7,000?10, 000 Somali deaths, quoted by Foreign Policy magazine.

There is no political context provided in Black Hawk Down ? it is meant as self-contained, boys-own adventure that could easily be transferred to just about any theatre of war ? the Somalian ?skinnies? in this movie could have been the ragheads of Iraq or the gooks of Vietnam. However with the geo-political reasoning of a studio kingpin, Three Kings is too recent in the memory and Vietnam has been done to death, so Somalia it is.

Stephen Murphy