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Black Hawk Down (Extended Review)

Ridley Scott's intense and effective war film.

by Jonathan Wilson
January 19, 2002

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<i>Black Hawk Down</i> (Extended Review)_Jonathan Wilson-Ridley Scott's intense and effective war film. One release I was anxious to watch was Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down," the story of the Special Forces' raid on General Aidid's organization in Mogadishu, Somalia in October of 1993. The movie ended 50 minutes ago at the time of writing. It was worth every minute. ***½

This movie is more effective than most any war movie, even "Platoon," when it comes to dramatizing the "fog of war." We begin to have a feel for the frustration of the men on the ground, and the sense of helplessness of the men at the command. Even in a small-scale raid, events move faster than communication. The men on the ground need to know the big picture so they can get out. The commanders with the bird's eye are cut-off from the realities at each street corner, and make what only they think are logical decisions.

When Hollywood fictionalizes these situations, they like to portray one perspective, particularly the command perspective, in a harsh light. When soldiers get killed, first the press and then the Congress and then movie producers look for someone to blame. What is so refreshing about "Black Hawk Down" is that they do not do resort to that formula. The press and the government had their day when the smoke cleared; this movie gave that day back to the soldiers. Well done, Hollywood.

Ewan McGregor steals his scenes as a coffee gourmet in his first fire-fight. Sam Shepard plays the commanding officer with humanity and empathy.

The politics are about as muted as they can be. The gung ho outlook of the troops is a survival mechanism which implies no judgment as to the floundering foreign policy of the Clinton administration in 1993. Certainly referring to hostiles and noncombatant Somalis alike as "skinnies" is insensitive, imperialistic, and perhaps tinged with bigotry. But unless the soldiers are equipped with an "us versus them" mentality on their missions under fire, their chances of survival diminish a lot.

Generals and colonels have to weigh the risks of medical evaccuation after two helicopters are shot down by Aidid's surface-to-air missiles. Meanwhile, the men on the ground get separated from each other, try to find each other, and every time another is hit, they take the wounded or the corpse with them.

This is an intense movie. We see that men do not die cleanly and immediately when struck by bullets. There are cries of pain, and grotesque procedures to stem bleeding while under fire.

I shaved half-a-star from the rating. It is a gut reaction in that I was hoping for some more gut reaction. In some ways the movie was too effective; in the fog of battle and the din of small-arms fire, I lost track of who was who. Names might as well have been serial numbers. I still don't know who died. At the end of the movie all 19 killed in action are listed, but the movie does not show all 19 or tell all 19 stories. We are also told, at the end, that 1000 (one THOUSAND, this is NOT a typo) Somalis died during the raid. None of them are named.

We do not begin to see that kind of Somali body count. What is missing from the movie is how Aidid's militia used women and children as cover as they advanced on the positions. What is missing from the movie is that U.S. Army Rangers with automatic weapons and .50 caliber guns mounted on humvees, on seeing that the hostiles chose these rules for engagement, mowed the crowds of people down. Perhaps those scenes were edited.

The facts that I report do not imply a moral judgment against men that this movie rightly portrays as heroes. I am only stating the facts as they were quoted by soldiers at the scene. This is why I was a bit surprised, even disappointed, to see a squeamishness on the part of the movie. We were shot at by boys with automatic weapons and women holding babies in one hand and pistols in the other. We blew them away. That is a fact.

It is important to realize what perhaps this movie fails to show, and this is the second reason I shave off half a star: The Battle of Mogadishu is not like Custer's Last Stand. In terms of kill ratio, it is an even more unbalanced massacre of indigenous peoples than the Battle of Wounded Knee.

It is right to romanticize the valor of American soldiers determined to "leave no one behind." This is an apolitical ethic, it is the gung ho attitude which allows ordinary men to do extraordinary things. It was this same attitude, to leave no man behind, in the hearts of the Buffalo Soldiers who galloped to the rescue of the Seventh Cavalry when its men were pinned down by hostile fire--not at the Little Big Horn in 1876, but at Wounded Knee in 1890.

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