For the most part, "Saving Private Ryan" closed the book on war movies
for me. The bookends of the story - which depict an elderly veteran
reflecting on his experiences in the war - put the film into context,
underlining director Steven Spielberg's goal to honor the veterans of
WWII. The staggering 30-minute opening sequence is the definitive battle
scene, putting the viewers directly in the middle of the nightmarish
action. And the sprawling tale that follows serves as a poignant
summation of the entire "brothers-in-arms" genre. From my viewpoint, any
post-"Ryan" war movie needs to justify its reason for being.
"Three Kings" did, deftly blending a ripping adventure story with an
indictment of our government for failing to live up to promises made
during the Persian Gulf War. "The Thin Red Line," with its bad poetry
and woozy meandering tone, did not, failing in its attempt to turn war,
Zen musings and a National Geographic nature special into something
Which brings us to "Black Hawk Down," a spectacle that teams the
generally acclaimed director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator," "Hannibal,"
"Thelma and Louise," "Alien," "Blade Runner" etc.) with the generally
reviled (by everyone except teenagers and studio accountants) producer
Jerry Bruckheimer ("Pearl Harbor," "Gone in 60 Seconds," "Armageddon,"
"Top Gun", etc.). Based on the non-fiction book by Mark Bowden, "Black
Hawk Down" follows a group of U.S. soldiers sent into Mogadishu,
Somalia, on October 3, 1993.
Their mission was to abduct two key military figures serving the Somali
warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, as part of a grand plan to stop the civil
war destroying the country. The entire action was to have lasted an
hour, tops, but then something goes wrong. Two Black Hawk helicopters,
considered to be virtually invulnerable, get shot down over the city.
Suddenly, the brass had a new agenda: find and rescue the soldiers that
survived the crash before the very angry people in Mogadishu get their
hands on them.
Essentially, "Black Hawk Down" is a 143-minute version of the opening
battle from "Saving Private Ryan," but with lovely art direction. Using
the book as his model, Scott was determined to (quoting from the press
kit) "create a story of combat which eliminated any information except
that which was occurring during the battle. It was not in his interest
to create backstories for each of the soldiers, or for the audience to
learn their histories before or after the battle. Anything revealed of
their personal world emerged in their actions during the mission."
As anyone who has watched a Ridley Scott film knows, the filmmaker is a
whiz in the art direction department and his talents in that area are on
full display here. "Black Hawk Down" looks amazing real, the
verisimilitude shaken only by Scott's grand use of color (check out the
gorgeous blends of blues and earth tones).
The story is certainly harrowing, although the non-stop
balls-to-the-walls approach periodically becomes enervating. There's a
reason why Spielberg kept his "Saving Private Ryan" journey-into-hell
battle down to slightly under a half hour; viewers can only sit through
so much horror before the attention begins to wander. From time to time,
especially in the last hour, I caught myself evaluating the American
accents of the British actors instead of remaining caught in the action.
Speaking of actors, there are many talented ones on hand, although the
noise and fury swallow most of their efforts. A few performers rise
above the din, though. Jeremy Piven ("Ellen") is likable as Chief
Warrant Officer Cliff "Elvis" Wolcott, the first pilot to be shot down.
"E.R." veteran Ron Eldard touches the heart as Chief Warrant Officer
Mike Durant, a Black Hawk pilot taken prisoner by hostile forces
(despite Ridley Scott's "no personal information before or after the
battle" edict, the fate of Durant is revealed in the closing titles)
and, as Major General William F. Garrison, Sam Shepard manages to be
commanding without falling into cliché.
As for Josh Hartnett, the only cast member with his name above the
title, well, he squints almost as much as he did in "Pearl Harbor."
So, in the post-"Saving Private Ryan" cinematic world, does "Black Hawk
Down" justify its existence? As an example of how contemporary war is
waged, it is instructive. As a reminder of what happens when any group
of outsiders interferes in another country's civil war, it is daunting.
But as an action movie, it is an exercise in excess, albeit one with a
knockout color scheme.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott