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Black Hawk Down

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Black Hawk Down

Starring: Josh Harnett, Ewan McGregor
Director: Ridley Scott
Rated: R
RunTime: 143 Minutes
Release Date: January 2002
Genres: Action, War, Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Amazing, isn't it, how many stories seem from today's headlines despite their being situated in different times and different places? Take the situation in Afghanistan, for example, to see how Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" provides clues to the causes and perhaps some counsel to the people in the U.S. government who design foreign policy. Some sources have said that the principal reason Osama bin Laden ordered the attack on New York's World Trade Center on September 11 is that he thought the U.S. would not fight back. What made him believe this? Consider this: in 1993, a team of Delta Force fighters and pilots from the U.S. acting as the principal contingent of a U.N. force, went to the capital of Somalia to try to end a civil war and bring food to the starving people. The U.N. believed that if could capture two top lieutenants of the powerful warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid in the capital city of Mogadishu, the fighting would effectively end, as Aidid was responsible for preventing the dissemination of food from the Indian Ocean port. But when eighteen Americans were killed by Aidid's forces and by a hostile civilian population, then dragged in the most humiliating way through the streets on the bumpers of cars, President Clinton pulled the forces out of Somalia, ending the mission. Result? America came off to some as a nation unwilling to sustain even a small number of casualties. Would the U.S. take military action in Afghanistan after the Trade Center disaster? Bin Laden thought no and he was wrong.

But he was not incorrect on one point that this film illustrates in scenes of almost unbearable tension and seemingly nonstop firing of AK-47's bazookas, grenades and the like. When two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were brought crashing to earth by the unfriendly Smali militia in a marketplace designated by the American command center as a hostile zone, the major general in charge of the operation insisted that every one of the boys on the ground, whether dead or alive, be brought back to base, a perimeter that was secured and under the control of friendly forces included soldiers from Pakistan. While the scene most remembered by Americans from pictures in the media was the dragging of U.S. bodies in the streets has been left out of the film, the overriding theme--the need to bring every body back to base--is always in our minds.

Directed by Ridley Scott ("Gladiator," "Hannibal," "Blade Runner") and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer ("Top Gun," "Crimson Tide," "Armageddon"), "Black Hawk Down" opens with minimal exposition. The background of the conflict is spelled out in writing, then continued by Major Gen. William F. Garrison (Sam Shepard) who, retaining his cool throughout the battle, issues broad orders and strategy from his command post in the safe zone. As the choppers move into position in the town marketplace (actually filmed by Slawomir Idziak in the Moroccan working-class city of Sale using a crew from the African quarters of several Moroccan towns and cities), we are quickly taken into the heart of the battle. Though the operation, the kidnapping of the Somalia lieutenants, was to take just 45 minutes where they would be listed out of a hotel, two choppers were downed and foot soldiers moved into place to do royal battle on the mean streets of Mogadishu, fired upon by the militia who are supported by enraged civilians looking upon the Americans as invaders and occupiers.

While Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" is considered by some to have perhaps the best war footage ever made, "Ryan''s praise is often reserved only for the first half hour of the action, the story considered the weak link in that film. "Black Hawk Down" turns the usual expectations upside down, providing on a skeletal story. Scott is not greatly concerned about differentiating his characters and in fact, in the largely second-tier group of actors (at least from the point of view of their celebrity status), there is not a heck of a lot to distinguish them. We do learn that one guy specializes in making coffee, which he did throughout the Gulf war two years previous to this one, and he is allegedly itching to get into some action this time around (though when he finally gets his wish and is ordered into battle he doesn't look too happy).

There are no women in this macho fare save for some veiled Somalis, one of whom seems to be a guerrilla fighter working actively with the militia against the American forces. While there is no love story to appeal to the traditional women's audience, the collection of actors represent a contingent of some of the most manly guys around. They include Josh Hartnett as Ranger Staff Sgt Matt Evesmann, Tom Sizemore as Ranger Lt. Col Danny McKnight, Eric Bana as Delta Sgt First Class "Hoot" Gibson, and William Fichtner as Delta Sgt First Class Jeff Sanderson.

This is a movie about pitched battles, about what it's like to conduct urban warfare rather than struggles taking place in jungles or in hills and caves as in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively. The Americans, greatly outnumbered, do succeed in killing about 1,000 Somalis taking 19 casualties and 73 wounded. Though the 2-1/2 hours go by in a flash, given the tension throughout most of the footage, more attention should have been paid to the fact that this was an act of American good will, to end a genocidal civil war and feed starving African people whose food was embargoed by a militia of their fellows. Should the U.S. have remained in Somalia after the humiliation suffered when eighteen bodies were dragged through the streets, and if so, would Osama bin Laden's hand have been stayed, leaving Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban to this day? The film does give us pause to ponder these issues, an effective, pounding, gritty drama which is so tough that Hans Zimmer's pounding music is scarcely needed.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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