black hawk down(2002)
director: ridley scott
josh hartnett, eric bana, william fichtner, sam shepard

. The timing for the release of a film like Black Hawk Down couldn’t be better. It’s been a long time -- probably as long ago as World War Two -- since audiences have been as primed to see war films. We’ve come to expect a certain visceral standard in the depiction of combat, but how much more sophisticated has the war film become in five decades?

Black Hawk Down -- based on a bestseller by journalist Mark Bowden -- is a curious choice, especially in the light of September 11th. It’s basically the story of a defeat: The Battle of the Black Sea is familiar to most of us by the image of an American soldier’s body being dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu by enraged Somalis who American troops were sent to help protect. It was peacekeeping gone terribly wrong, and after a nasty, night-long street battle where Army Rangers and elite Delta Force troops fought off thousands of armed Somali militia and citizens, President Clinton ordered a humiliating pull-out.

Publicity for the film has tried -- unconvincingly -- to suggest that The Battle of the Black Sea was really a victory, at least on the ground where U.S. soldiers showed incredible bravery. Thanks to director Ridley Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, those twelve hours of battle are shown with spectacular, pyrotechnic precision; never has the “fog of war” been portrayed so clinically. John Hartnett is an empathetic but unremarkable lead, while the stunning cast that supports him -- probably every decent young actor in Europe, Britain, Australia and America -- just barely manages to suggest the range of personalities trapped in the nightmare firefight. 

Scott and Bruckheimer’s decision to limit the film to the events of the battle cuts out a lot of backstory. We’re spared the usual “folks back home” sentimentality as well as a lot of characterization, but we also miss the colossal diplomatic and intelligence failures that made a clash in Mogadishu inevitable. All war films are dishonest -- a truly honest war film would be an unwatchable horrorshow -- but Black Hawk Down avoids the hugest lies mostly by omission. By limiting itself to the reactions of the soldiers under fire, the film tries to show victory in the middle of a defeat; by opening itself up with a bit more context, it could have shown something even more profound -- a tragedy.