Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Black Hawk Down Movie Review

As I rewatched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down for the first time I more than a decade, two other war Berchtesgaden more than a year later. The similarities are numerous. Both are based on books that attempted to recount, in as much factual detail as possible, the events surrounding are large contingent of American soldiers in conflict. Both were released toward the end of 2001, coinciding with post-9/11 American jingoism. Both focus heavily on the responsibility soldiers in combat feel toward each other more than to the ideology or politics behind the war. And both unflinchingly portray some of the horrors and carnage of war. The other is the more recent Lone Survivor, whose primary focus is on the fact of soldiers in harm’s way pulling for each other. The latter film has faced criticism for being a form of war porn, which you could also say to some extent about Scott’s film. But I think the positives to take away from all three far outweigh any negative observations regarding the depiction of blood and guts in battle scenarios.

Whereas Band of Brothers had nearly ten hours of screen time to develop multiple characters in a storyline that spanned two years, Black Hawk Down has less than two and a half to flesh out roughly the same number of men during a battle that lasted less than twenty-four hours. So what you get in Black Hawk Down, adapted from the book by Mark Bowden by Ken Nolan (who was the only credited screenwriter among several contributors, including Bowden himself), is an intense snapshot of several Army Rangers and Delta Force, most of whom are directly based on real people, behaving only as Hollywood American soldiers behave: heroically; selflessly; courageously; sacrificially. In that sense, it’s much more in line with Lone Survivor, which depicted four American soldiers fending off several dozen to a hundred Taliban fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan, the film’s title giving away the result.

In 1993, President Clinton sent the United States military in a humanitarian mission to Somalia to help civilians receive aid that was constantly intercepted by the warlord Aidid. Misguidedly believing that removing Aidid would stop the violence, a special operation was conducted to extract him from the center of Mogadishu, a city occupied by thousands of Aidid militia. The plan went south, two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, and in an attempt to reach the crash survivors, dozens more American soldiers ended up killed and wounded in intense firefighting on the streets of the city. It ended up being not only a military disaster and a national embarrassment, but a political disaster early in Clinton’s first term.

The cast is packed with then unknown, but now recognizable faces (another trait it shares with Band of Brothers) including Orlando Bloom, Tom Hardy, Ty Burrell, and Ron Eldard. You’ll also see William Fichtner, Ewan McGregor and Tom Sizemore, and Josh Hartnett leads the cast as Sgt. Eversmann, the story’s focal point, a newly appointed squad leader who doesn’t want to let his men down. It’s easier now to distinguish one soldier from another because the actors’ faces are recognizable to me thirteen years later, but I remember being lost in a sea of who’s who when I first saw the film. Eric Bana is the other star, who plays a Delta Force soldier who lays it down simply for Eversmann, “Get your men back alive.” That’s sort of the sum of the thematic elements of Nolan’s screenplay. This is an existential war movie. Apart from some opening titles setting the background for the conflict, there’s little in the way of politicization, discussion of the purpose of their mission, or philosophical discourse. For these soldiers, in this moment, survival is the only thing that matters apart from fighting hard for the man next to you. That itself is an oft-repeated theme throughout the history of war films. In that respect, a scene involving Sam Shepherd as General Garrison meeting with a kidnapped Aidid lieutenant in which they discuss the efficacy of taking Aidid out, has no place in the film.

There’s plenty to say about the screenplay, which may avoid the American jingoism so prevalent throughout the history of the genre, but manages to telegraph almost every tragic event with neon signs. When a soldier complains about spending his army career typing and making coffee, guess who will be called into the mission at the zero hour. Do you think the guy who removes his rear body armor plate to reduce the weight he’s carrying will get shot in the back? What will happen to the two snipers who want to drop into a hostile zone to protect the downed helicopter even when they’ve been refused permission twice? All throughout I kept thinking of Band of Brothers, which I’d just recently watched again, because it is much better at developing that camaraderie among brothers-in-arms and with writing that is subtler and more honed at depicting an existential crisis.

Granted, Black Hawk Down has far less time to achieve its goals, which is where Ridley Scott’s skill as an action director comes in handy. This movie is far more successful as an immersive experience than many other war films. I distinctly remember feeling on edge and breathless when the film was fresh and new. I had a little of it come back this time, although it loses something when you already know the outcome. The battle sequence, which basically takes up the duration of the film, is expertly stages. It’s well-constructed from a cinematic strategy point of view. Scott includes maps of the layout, aerial images that the command and control helicopters could see, and of course the soldiers and cameras on the ground make up the bulk of the footage. There’s little sense of feeling lost in an unknown territory. The feeling of danger is ever-present and though the film never really bothers to ask the question, you can’t help but recognize that the lives lost in this battle were for nothing. That Ridley Scott recognized that the film speaks for itself in that regard is one its greatest assets.

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