"Black Hawk Down" Review
© 2002 Fontaine L.

Inevitably, you will hear people describe Black Hawk Down as, respectively, a film that is relevant to our times and a film that is extremely hard to watch. I agree. The film is both of these things. By now it is cliche to mention how September 11th has put everything in perspective. Black Hawk Down is one of those films that will, perhaps unintentionally, hit close to home. I'm no historian, but I've gathered from the film that the events in Somalia that it depicts occurred in a context of civil war. The Americans intervened and got into big trouble. The film does not judge the United State's intervention, nor does it take either side of the civil war. What it presents is full-fledged, unabashed war at its most honest. This is modern warfare, and when the bodies are falling does it really matter which side you're on anymore? More important to us is how the film thrusts itself upon us, the "innocent" audience, and also upon the "innocent" U.S. soldiers. It was a simple U.N. mission. We're the good guys. We're doing what's right. Hell, American pie Josh Hartnett plays our main character. When all hell breaks loose in the film, however, we realize that the world is more complicated than that. One of the Somalians asks an American prisoner of war (Ron Eldard) if he really believes the war and violence will stop once they capture the Somalian dictator. Do we believe injustice and turbulence in the Middle East will come to an end if we capture (and kill, and draw, and quarter, and crucify) You Know Who? The naive, idealistic soldiers in the film project equal parts pathos and irony. The cast is mostly appropriate, sometimes adept, at times masterful. The characters aren't particularly well-developed, but perhaps most importantly, neither one of them stand out more than the others. All men are equal in war.

And saying the film is hard to watch is the understatement of the year. "Black" makes E.R. look like the Disney Afternoon (though admittedly the latter isn't exactly the edgiest show on television). We begin to get the sense that unlike many conventional Hollywood films, we don't know who's going to die with the next hand grenade or sniper bullet (unless you've read the book and you're familiar with the event). Is it Josh Hartnett? Ewan McGregor? Ewem Bremmer? Tom Sizemore? The film has a formidable cast, and thus plenty of characters to sacrifice. We're deprived of our cinematic security blanket that comes with seeing those other Jerry Bruckheimer films. Like Apocalypse Now--a decidedly more cynical film at that--"Black" doesn't shy away from scenes that might make you cringe or flinch, in both good and bad ways. Fake blood is used liberally but not gratuitously. There's a scene where a soldier's ruptured leg is shown in close up as a medic shoves his hand into the wound to probe for an artery. This goes on for about two interminable, agonizing minutes. The sound effects here are also particularly realistic. You get the idea. This scene wouldn't appear in most war films, but it has here. In another disturbing scene, an American soldier trapped in a crashed helicopter watches helplessly as the hostile locals converge upon him an apocalyptic scene reminiscent of The Day of the Locust. He fires away at them, and the first few Somalians drop like enemy Nazis in Wolfenstein 3D ... but there are too many of them. In this scene and many others, Ridley Scott succeeds in communicating the true horrors of war. It's not pretty, and he doesn't hide the fact that the Americans really fucked things up. I must confess that it will be a while before I find shooting enemies point blank in videogames amusing.

That being said, and with everything it's accomplished, "Black" ultimately winds up as a story with uncertain conclusions. Whether you're okay with this ambiguity or not might very well determine your judgment of this film. The film's ambiguous treatment of the incident might reflect cinematic uncertainty or it might be a masterful extension of its own central message: war is confusing. The film clearly portrays the Americans in a heroic light--the actors and the music say as much--despite Josh Hartnett's protestations to the contrary, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. Are they villains because they killed hundreds of Somalian boys who barely knew how to handle guns? Are they heroes because they were loyal, courageous, and persistent? And what about the Somalians? The film pins the region's dictator as its chief villain, but his victim is the nation itself. Who, then, are the Americans fighting against? As the final Americans escape from the hostile city, the lingering footnote tells us that 18 Americans perished to the death toll of 1000+ Somalians. Even as we celebrate a safe homecoming, Scott does not allow us any peace, and that to me is where "Black" succeeds. There's a raw, crackling energy that permeates the film. It's in the soldiers' initial youthful optimism and in the Somalians' native song. It's in those moments where it is just one human being against or beside another, moments pervaded by universal humain pain rather than the stench of politics. Black Hawk Down is a wonderful, compelling, entertaining, high-adrenaline war film.

But it's also the nagging doubt in your subconscious.

Rating: A- (First viewing, 1/4/02)