A scene from 'Black Hawk Down'
Courtesy Photo
*** stars 143 minutes | Rated: R
NY/LA: Friday, December 28, 2001
Wider: Friday, January 18, 2002
Directed by Ridley Scott

Starring Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Tom Sizemore, Jason Isaacs, William Fichtner, Ron Eldard, Jeremy Piven, Eric Bana, Ewen Bremner

Read our interview with Ridley Scott Interview with director Ridley Scott


Watching on TV won't provide quite the same sensation of battle realism as seeing this film in the theater. As a result the film's weaknesses (the anonymous, interchangable nature of the soldier characters), the video game facelessness of the Somolian attackers), might rise to the surface. But it's still worth seeing.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 06.11.2002

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'Black Hawk Down' recounts disastrous 1993 military mission in gripping cinematic detail

By Rob Blackwelder

Riding shotgun through an infamously botched 1993 military mission in Somalia, Ridley Scott's dusty, bloody, sometimes agonizing "Black Hawk Down" provides a realistic and cinematically astute taste of war, without the kind of nerve-wracking hyper-authenticity that makes you feel as if you might get shot while watching it.

This is not, as a few overly enthusiastic critics have pronounced, like the first 25 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" for two hours. I felt safe in my theater seat for the course of the film -- but I did feel the chaos and peril that erupted around the Delta Force and Army Ranger units sent into Mogadishu on October 3, 1993, to arrest a notorious warlord.

Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in what was supposed to be a 30 minute operation, and several dozen soldiers were surrounded by angry, heavily armed militias that kept U.S. troops pinned down for 18 hours in a unceasing guerilla gun battle that eventually claimed hundreds of Somalian lives, killed 18 Americans and wounded 73 more.

As demonstrated in "Gladiator" and "G.I. Jane," Scott has a talent for creating a polished, photogenic vision of battle that still gets across the blood and guts of it all. This skill is even more in evidence in "Black Hawk Down," in which he employs amazingly crisp and handsome aerial cinematography, and a distinctive color palette of turbulent cobalt blue, night-visiony green and incendiary orange to artistically ratchet up the imposing ambiance of battle commotion.

This stylishness does overshadow the film's military grit, but "Black Hawk Down" is more of mood movie anyway. What it captures, and captures well, are the collective sensory perceptions of its soldiers -- abject frustration, dedication to duty, dismay and fear, grief, a desire for retribution, and above all, heroism in the face of impossible odds.

Aiming for that collective connotation, Scott does not try to form attachments to the film's fictionalized characters so he can kill them for emotional shock value, preferring to better illustrate the ensuing confusion with his soldiers' very anonymity. Many of them die -- some in gasping panics as medics try to cauterize their horrible wounds -- but none of them are holding pictures of girlfriends back home or calling out for their moms.

If the film has a lead, it would be a young sergeant played by Josh Hartnett, who gets most of the movie's character development. He's cast as the Army's collective conscience -- an idealist who genuinely believes in the Somalian mission of humanitarian aide. "We can either help, or we can sit back and watch them destroy themselves on CNN," he preaches as his unit prepares for their ill-fated raid.

Ewan McGregor gets to toy with a little personality as well, as a frustrated desk jockey who is happy to see combat when one team is a man short. "I have a rare and mysterious skill that keeps me from going on missions," he quips. "I can type."

Other relatively recognizable names appear in largely anonymous roles, including Tom Sizemore, Jason Isaacs, William Fichtner, Ron Eldard, Jeremy Piven, Eric Bana and Ewen Bremner, all playing soldiers or doomed Black Hawk pilots who watch, trapped in their crushed cockpits as hoards of Somalian street soldiers descend on them.

Strangely, the one indelible image from these events, the image that made them front page news, is not included in the film -- the bloodied bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. That did take place the day after the events in the film, however, and the film is faithfully adapted from a detailed book by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden. "Black Hawk Down" focuses solely on the mission gone wrong, following several small groups of soldiers, including some pinned down in a bombed-out building by hundreds of trigger-happy militiamen, and some in a convoy trying to reach the crashed choppers but finding an ambush along every route. At times it's hard to keep track of the manifold narrative, but that's not entirely by accident -- the confusion draws a parallel to the minds of the young soldiers.

Scott taps all his Hollywood know-how for the picture's jarring firefights, but he shows restraint in unsettling pauses that make you realize how much every bullet counts. The same is true of the thunderous helicopter crashes that begin the whole nightmare, which are all the more staggering for not being souped up with action movie explosions.

The director goes a little too far out of his way to emphasize the soldiers' heroism over the tragic extent of the military blunders. This is the film's one significant flaw -- not that Scott paints these men as heroes, but that he puts so much emphasis on said heroism that some viewers could come away seeing "Black Hawk Down" purely as a flag-waver instead of a condemnation of war that still honors the warriors themselves.


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