The city of Mogadishu, in famine stricken Somalia. It’s 1995 and a joint task force of Army Rangers, Delta Force, and the 160th SOAR, here to support UN peacekeeping operations against the militia of Mohammed Farrah Aidid, organize a quick strike raid into the city to capture some of the local warlord’s top lieutenants. It quickly deteriorates into a full-blown rescue mission as, per the title, a Black Hawk military helicopter – the best of the best available, mind you – is shot down in the middle of the hostile urban city. Leaving no man behind, the troops on the ground fight to reach any possible survivors just as another chopper gets hit by an rocket-propelled grenade. And they shoot their way to that one, too. Yup, that’s pretty much Black Hawk Down.
A viable argument could be made for Ridley Scott’s 2001 film being a technically superb, or furthermore perfect, movie. Intensely visual and visceral but aurally important as well, this down-and-dirty war picture about the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu sends you straight into, pardon the tired expression, the middle of the action. For more than two hours, the dull, metal staccato of automatic rifle and machine gun fire ring out in unpredictable yet expected bursts, explosions reduce desolate buildings to rubble littered with corpses, and the whirring sound of helicopter blades from above becomes a reassuring, even life-saving one. It would be like one of those video games if not for Scott’s filmmaking aesthetic and style, which is damn hard to discern between his various films of various genres, but here he allows for surprising moments of visual beauty to cut through the grime and blood, and even accentuate it.
Those moments are far and few between, but they make an impression: a convoy of menacing, bristling Black Hawk and AH-6J Little Bird military choppers flying in formation low over a pristine glittering beach, while the sound fades away stylistically to create a haunting and formidable atmosphere. Apocalypse Now is brought to mind, naturally, but instead of going for a gung-ho showiness of strength a sort of calm before the storm is shown. Then, it is over – the choppers bank sharply left and start flying over Mogadishu, flying straight into the black smoke billowing in the air from the tires that the Somalian militia are burning as signals. Another strikingly poetic bit comes near the end, where a dozen or so exhausted American soldiers are forced to run pell-mell down the road out of the hostile slums of the city and into UN Safe Zone territory, being watched retreat by hundreds of victorious armed militia behind them. They stumble in slo-mo through some sort of claustrophobic fog, led by laughing street kids and cheered on by peaceable villagers.
What does all this add up to substantially, you might ask? Is Black Hawk Down an anti-war movie or simply pro-war? I don’t really know. Does Scott know? I don’t think he cares. Perhaps the best insight one might get about what this film aspires to be are the quiet conversations between the young Sgt. Eversmann and the lean, dangerous SFC “Hoot” Gibson, played by Josh Hartnett and Eric Bana, respectively, two soldiers with very different train of thoughts when their minds inevitably turns to some quasi-existential self-reflection. There’s a point in the film where Eversmann, who’s already shown to be a wide-eyed idealist, nervously asks the older man what he thinks about being here fighting “skinnies” in a faraway African country. “Y’know what I think? Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window,” is the terse answer.
So Black Hawk Down doesn’t want to be about anything but the men, because in the end the story is about them not the American government’s involvement in Somalia or the failed operation or other tempting things like that. That’s more than fine by me, as the film is so mindblowingly immersive and nailbitingly realistic that you truly feel like you are there alongside the soldiers, and that nothing else really matters. They themselves are portrayed by a stunning variety of actors, both young and old, including but not limited to Hartnett, Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Orlando Bloom, Jason Isaacs, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Piven, and Tom Hardy. Many are unrecognizable but their presence is noted. [A-]