It”s like watching a man drown, then watching the man trying to save him drown. Another man comes along, and soon all three have drowned. That”s how things went in Mogadishu. A group of 19 U.S. troops, close to 1,000 Somali troops and citizens and two Black Hawk helicopters were lost in the notorious 1993 U.S. Special Forces raid on the Somali capital and its warlord-general, Mohammed Farah Aidid. Through detailed interviews and research, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden turned the 15 hour blunder into a blow by blow account of astonishing precision in a book called “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War.” Blockbuster warlord-general Jerry Bruckheimer picked it up.
The “wow the blood, wow the guts” repetition of “Black Hawk Down” is sometimes like a bad alliteration: The words and images have something to do with each other, but add up to a showiness that is counterproductive to its original and intended meaning. Perhaps this is how some would compartmentalize the two hours plus of the film.
But perhaps it shouldn”t be boxed and stored as such. Yes, this is a war movie. And yes, this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production. And, oh yes, Ridley Scott made not only “Gladiator” but also “G.I. Jane” and “White Squall.” “Black Hawk Down,” however, is not any kind of glamour stage or love story, camouflaged or not.
It treats no other subject than what historically happened. Hollywood blemishes are minimal. War is everything: There is little talk of Washington and minimal (and perfectly excusable) “tell my wife I love her” jargon, not to mention an intentional lack of character development.
Visually stunning, the color distortions of hot Somali street scenes (filmed in Morocco) evoke both a warm and entirely foreign aesthetic as the dust swirls and falls like rain, constantly surrounding the cast of bewildered soldiers. The red of blood and orange of fire are even distracting in their luster. In a move that some might find risqu, the distortion also makes the seemingly endless universe of Somali extras loom an even darker, faceless mass.
The necessary, but somewhat ridiculous, beginning follows various cinematic pawns hawking 20 minutes of “Aidid is a bad warlord, let”s take him out” discussion. The fact that there aren”t any overwhelmingly famous stars in the film makes this more neutral and passable. The conscience of the viewer is established in the form of Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), who is checked by his humanitarian awareness and concern that 300,000 have either been killed or starved in Somalia under Aidid.
The troops jog and board the ready choppers to the Stevie Ray Vaughn cover of the Hendrix classic “Voodoo Child.” The psychedelic soundtrack to the “60s,” and moreover, Vietnam, is revisited and recast. However, Eversmann brings this historical reenactment a sense of purpose in national unity. By the time the credits roll, there is certainly the sunken feeling of futility and failure, but there is no tremendous exclamation point that usually surrounds Vietnam. The film was originally slated for a summer 2002 release date and was pushed up post Sept. 11. The message that we”re doing the right thing in a foreign land and at a potentially great cost, comes through a little jaded, but honest.
The repetition is instrumental to the film”s integrity. The gunshots and explosions get old then new again. Endless missing limbs, backup units and bandages do not deny this story a moral, although it ultimately comes through in words, not images, at the end of the film. The two soliloquies involving honest heroics don”t exactly cloud eyes, but do succeed in getting across a less-than-sappy idea of what this film is about.
The appreciation for the visceral nature of “Black Hawk Down” should not be lost on the viewer. The film projects a sense of urgency by sustaining such brutality in the face of an industry and audience that feeds on steamy sub-plots and intense protagonist identification even in historical reenactments. What “Black Hawk Down” does well is the opposite of glorification, which should neither be overlooked nor undermined … if you can take the drowning.