Once released in 1998, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan ushered in a new type of war film for the mainstream market. The days of war movies containing sanitary, romanticised imagery of the battlefield had come to an end, and in their place were visceral, gritty war pictures conveying the true realities of wartime horror in an unflinching fashion. Although a big-budget Hollywood production created by a popcorn movie peddlers, 2001’s Black Hawk Down abides by the Saving Private Ryan approach; offering an indelibly powerful look at the realities of modern warfare. Loud, relentless and brutal, this harrowing and raw motion picture places you in the moment and allows you to experience the sensation of being caught in combat with no place to go. Without any cheesy subplots to weigh it down, Black Hawk Down is almost wall-to-wall combat, and it is an utterly gripping cinematic experience.
Based on Mark Bowden’s book of the same name, Black Hawk Down chronicles the true events that took place in Somalia in 1993. An elite group of Delta Force Soldiers and American Rangers were sent into Mogadishu, Somalia to help end the vicious civil war of the period, in which warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid was seizing international food shipments, causing the starvation deaths of several thousand Somalian peoples. In early October 1993, American soldiers raided a major building in the densely-populated city, aiming to capture several of Aidid’s top lieutenants. However, what was supposed to be a routine, half-hour mission transformed into a prolonged 15-hour bloodbath due to severe hostility and a few military blunders. Pitted against thousands of Somali militia, the American troops were left to fight their way out of the city.
Bowden’s detailed book about the Black Hawk Down incident was about 400 pages in length, yet director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan managed to compress the dense source material into a 140-minute motion picture, resulting in an airtight adaptation conveying the essential facts within its restricted runtime. After initially concentrating on character introductions and dramatic growth, the film transforms into an extended action sequence. Imagine the intensity of Saving Private Ryan‘s opening Omaha Beach sequence extended to about 70 or 80 minutes with practically no respite. Furthermore, Black Hawk Down does not analyse what happened in Somalia or provide any political grandstanding. Rather than politics, Scott and co were merely concerned with staging a dramatisation of the 15 hours of combat that killed a number of American soldiers and injured dozens of others. On top of this, to the credit of Scott and Nolan, the chaotic events are shown without forgoing a narrative or reducing dialogue to generic background noise. The writing especially comes to life during a number of poetic monologues.
A master craftsman, Ridley Scott’s depiction of the combat and violence is not sugar-coated. Scott (ever the perfectionist) and cinematographer Slavomir Idziak framed the action so precisely using such perfect camera angle placement that the illusion of being there is so real and immediate that you could be forgiven for ducking your head in a subconscious bid to avoid being hit by shrapnel. Indeed, the battle scenes are as accurate as a depiction of modern warfare can be, and Scott’s exceptional skills as a visual storyteller help make Black Hawk Down such an unmitigated success. Furthermore, the special effects are utterly seamless, the sound design is ear-shattering, and the editing is spot-on. In fact, the film earned Academy Awards for Editing and Sound, while Scott and cinematographer Idziak received nominations. And then there’s Hans Zimmer’s amazing score, which is intense and harrowing, not to mention it was given a Middle-Eastern flavour to suit the visuals.
A veritable who’s who of young and old Hollywood male actors, Black Hawk Down benefits from an extraordinary cast. The ensemble includes such names as John Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore (also seen in Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor…), Jeremy Piven, William Fichtner, Orlando Bloom, Jason Isaacs, Tom Hardy, Matthew Marsden, and even Australian star Eric Bana (who adopted an obvious but nonetheless effective American accent). All of these actors (and beyond) did an exceptional job; forming a tight, believable unit. Director Ridley Scott and writer Ken Nolan did not fall into the trap of letting these actors become interchangeable names with faces. Rather, each actor is unique and for the most part distinguishable during the scenes of intense combat (as much as they could possibly be without murdering the momentum).
Black Hawk Down is often charged with being racist, and people accuse it of not doing enough justice to the Somali viewpoint. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer delivered the best rebuttal to this: the film presents a viewpoint, not every viewpoint. Additionally, while there is a degree of flag waving and patriotism, this is counterbalanced by scenes showing that not all Somali militia are mindless savages. For instance, a scene between pilot Michael Durant and his Somali capturer gives a face to the indigenous population, and his sentiments allow us to understand things from their perspective. Furthermore, prior to the fateful mission, a character even explains his respect for the Somalians. Heck, at several times Ridley Scott even emphasises that the Americans perhaps did not belong in the country. For a film that is so frequently criticised as overly patriotic and racist, Black Hawk Down contains far more layers than some people care to notice.
No movie will ever be able to truly recreate the experience of being caught in combat during war, but the makers behind Black Hawk Down did everything in their power to get us as close as a television screen will allow, bombarding viewers with an unrelenting string of violence and action. Yet it’s the heart, emotion, humanity and brutal honesty that allows Black Hawk Down to escape the derogatory “action porn” label. This is the type of film that Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pearl Harbor should have been, but wasn’t. While Black Hawk Down has its detractors, this reviewer is not among them. This is an important war movie, and it deserves to be seen at the earliest opportunity regardless of your political affiliations or opinions.