Our review of Black Hawk Down, published June 11th, 2002, is also available.
The ghosts of Somalia continue to haunt U.S. policy.—Walter Clark, former Deputy Special Envoy to Somalia, speaking as US forces entered Afghanistan in 2001
Our young men realized that the American soldier was just a paper tiger. He was unable to endure the strikes that were dealt to his army, and so he fled.—Osama Bin Laden, speaking of the effects of the Mogadishu raid in a 1998 television interview
Much has been written and said about the U.S. military involvement in Somalia. What began as a successful effort to halt bloodshed and feed starving people somehow evolved into a series of seek-and-destroy missions against the powerful warlords who ran various factions within the country. When one such raid did not go according to plan and 18 American soldiers were lost, the public outcry was enormous; despite the fact that the mission was technically a success, the Clinton administration ordered the troops out of Somalia in short order. The repercussions for American foreign policy were huge, and continue to this day. So too continues the debate over why we were there, what actually happened, what went wrong, and whether or not the mission was a victory or a defeat.
Black Hawk Down is director Ridley Scott's attempt to make the events of that fateful raid comprehensible. It is based on the book of the same name by author Mark Bowden, who first brought a comprehensive account of the Mogadishu episode to the public. The film to a large extent avoids questions of policy, politics, or other elements of the broader context in a narrow, Joe Friday-esque attempt to focus on just the facts of the event.
Facts of the Case
On October 3, 1993, a force of U.S. Rangers supported by Delta Force commandos set out to capture two chief aides to Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. It was supposed to be a surgical mission: bring the Rangers and Delta in via Blackhawk helicopters operated by crack Nightstalker pilots, let them capture the "bad guys," and take everyone out via a convoy of trucks and Humvees. With U.S. training, equipment, and air support backing them up it should have been a 45 minute job.
Eighteen hours later, with 18 men dead, 73 wounded, and two Blackhawks shot down, the last Rangers finally left Mogadishu, suffering the final indignity of having to run out of the city on foot. Black Hawk Down is the story of the U.S. servicemen, living and dead, who found themselves in the biggest firefight U.S. forces had seen since the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam.
Warfare, whether small-scale or large-scale, does not follow neat timelines nor obey the sensibilities of scriptwriters. Bowden's book telling the story of the Black Hawk Down incident runs to 400 pages. Probably the biggest accomplishment of Ridley Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan is compressing such vast information into 144 minutes and coming out with a reasonably solid narrative that an audience can follow. The results are exactly what one would expect from Scott, the thinking person's action film director. The battle scenes are as accurate a depiction of modern warfare as is possible; they are full of chaos and visceral terror, yet easy enough to follow that they make sense in terms of the overall narrative. Scott shows his usual skill and an almost documentary attention to detail.
In making Black Hawk Down, Scott walked a fine line. All war films—all good ones, at any rate—are to one degree or another inherently anti-war. No film that shows honestly what Scott calls "the realities of war and loss" can help but be anti-war. At the same time, Scott wanted to make a film that accurately reflected the experiences and attitudes of the men who were there. This tension results in a film that in Scott's words is "anti-war but pro-military." He believes that regardless of one's views on the objectives or outcomes of a given mission, there has to be a measure of respect for the incredibly well-trained and dedicated people who devote their lives to fighting for their ideals, their country, or whatever good or ill their leaders tell them they must fight for. The film succeeds for the most part in maintaining this tension. At no time during Black Hawk Down does war look like fun, or like anything less than pure horror; on the other hand, the audience is brought to respect and perhaps even care for the men who are willing to take part in it. If that makes the film jingoistic or imperialist in the eyes of some viewers, then they've missed the entire point. Of course, to some kneejerk viewers, any film that makes a marginally more positive comment about the U.S. military than, say, Oliver Stone would is inherently a flag-waving farce.
There are too many characters in the original book to keep straight, and even when they have been pared down and composited for the film it is hard to get them all straight based on the chaotic glimpses we get of each man. A few of the actors, due partly to performances but mostly to the greater screen time given their characters, do manage to make an impression, however. Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor, Hollywood Homicide) turns in a solid performance as SSGT Matt Eversmann. Hartnett alone among the cast gets a few moments here and there to ask some of the "big picture" questions about U.S. involvement in Somalia. His performance is thoughtful, understated, and reserved—or at least as much as it can be in the midst of a firefight. He brings a deadly earnestness to the role that is quite appropriate. His best scenes are those shared with Eric Bana (Hulk, Finding Nemo) in the role of "Hoot," a wise and battle-hardened Delta Force operator. Bana nails the part of Hoot, playing the role with a supreme self-confidence that never shades into arrogance. Other notable performances are William Fichtner as another elite Delta operator, Ewan McGregor as a company clerk who gets to do something other than make coffee for a change, and playwright-turned-actor Sam Shepard as the general in charge of the whole operation.
Columbia's new Deluxe Edition of Black Hawk Down has set the new standard for DVD special features. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this edition is the yardstick by which other special editions will be measured—at least until we get a peek at The Two Towers and the Indiana Jones Trilogy this fall. The quantity of supplements spread across these three discs is overwhelming. I am happy to report that the quality is consistently outstanding as well. There are hours and hours of information here, and almost none of it can be considered fluff. Those interested in the complete listing of extra features can check out the list on the right-hand side of this page; I am not going to comment on every piece of extra material, but there are some noteworthy bits to which I would like to draw your attention.
First and foremost, a well-done commentary track will always be the single most important piece of added-value content available on a DVD. The Black Hawk Down Deluxe Edition provides three such tracks. The first features Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Scott's commentary tracks are some of the best available on DVD, and this one is no exception. Bruckheimer's comments, edited in with Scott's, give a lot of interesting detail as well, such as the negotiations that went on between the filmmakers and the Pentagon over access to personnel, official accounts, and equipment such as the all-important Blackhawks. Bruckheimer and Scott both tell of the difficulties of bringing 100 Rangers, a dozen Humvees, and eight Blackhawks into Morocco for filming. This was considerably more firepower than anything else in the country, and the king was understandably hesitant to consent to such a large foreign military presence. Scott was heard to joke at one point during filming that "we could take over this f***ing country, mate," and he probably wasn't too far from the truth. The second commentary track features author Mark Bowden and screenwriter Ken Nolan. Both men were involved in bringing Bowden's book to the screen; it was also each man's first experience being so integrally involved with a major motion picture. Their commentary gives a lot of insight into the adaptation process, but also captures a certain sense of wonder and freshness that many more experienced, jaded Hollywood hands lack. The final commentary track is made up of Task Force Ranger veterans Col. Tom Matthews (Ret.), who commanded the air mission that day in Mogadishu; Col. Danny McKnight (Ret.), commander of the ground convoy and played in the film by Tom Sizemore; Col. Lee Van Arsdale (Ret.), a former Delta operator and ranking officer at the first crash site; and MSGT Matt Eversmann, played in the film as noted earlier by Josh Hartnett. This is one of the more fascinating commentary tracks in recent memory, as the four men lay out the real military background of the story and point out the accuracies, inaccuracies, and artistic licenses taken with the incident. For the most part, the men agree that Black Hawk Down does an excellent job recreating the incident, even if some of the incidental details aren't always strictly right. All three of these commentary tracks have optional Spanish subtitles, so that Spanish-speakers can follow the comments; the "soldier commentary" is also subtitled to identify each speaker.
One of the under-utilized features of DVD is the multi-angle capability; Columbia makes use of it on this disc with an excellent multi-angle presentation of the critical Ranger building insertion sequence. Scott shot the entire scene with six different cameras rolling simultaneously; all six angles are provided, and the viewer may scroll through all of them or watch a separate seventh option which provides all six angles at once in split-screen. This can all viewed either with the production audio as shot on-set, with lots of gunfire and explosions, or with commentary by assistant director Terry Needham. This feature alone is why most of us bought into the promise of DVD in the first place.
Another key set of special features is the historical background provided. In this section there are two independently-produced documentaries. One is the History Channel presentation, The True Story of Black Hawk Down. The other is the PBS Frontline report, Ambush in Mogadishu. While both are excellent, the PBS doc probably does a better job of putting the entire incident into a global context; it is in this production that we learn that Al Qaeda had a hand in supporting Mohammed Farrah Aidid, with Osama Bin Laden watching closely from nearby Sudan.
The other special features are excellent as well. The featurette The Essence of Combat: The Making of Black Hawk Down is probably the most complete look at the making of a film ever produced; it actually runs longer than the film it documents. There is a ton of production design material, storyboards, concept drawings, behind-the-scenes photos, and the like that should keep any Black Hawk Down fan or serious film student occupied for days on end. Again, this is only a quick synopsis of the voluminous special features on these discs; please refer to the full listing for more detail.
If you're still reading at this point, you probably want to know what the movie looks and sounds like. Video quality is for the most part excellent. Colors are muted due to choices Scott made in the film's palette, but they are faithfully and clearly rendered. Shadowed areas and night scenes look better than on any non-Superbit Columbia title I have ever seen. There is some roughness to certain scenes that comes as a result of Scott's semi-documentary approach, but this is to be expected. There were a few instances where ringing artifacts/halos/edge enhancement was clearly visible. There is some graininess and picture noise from time to time, but for the most part the image is rock-solid. I did notice one particularly bad spot in the opening credits, which show sand blowing across the desert floor; this was apparently just too much for the compression to handle, because it buzzes and shimmers with pixelation and mosquito noise. This only occurred briefly, and was not enough to detract from the rest of the film, but it was noticeable.
The primary audio track is Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. It sounds great, making full use of the surround system to immerse the viewer in the streets of Mogadishu. Directional effects like helicopter flybys and general sounds of battle will assail you from all sides, and have you ducking for cover under the cushions of your couch. The only way it could have been better would have been the inclusion of a DTS track; the Dolby 5.1 audio is a bit of a disappointment compared to the DTS on some of Scott's other films, such as Gladiator. However, this is the sacrifice we make for the excellent commentary tracks and other special features, and I for one wouldn't trade them for anything.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the tired, absurd charges often leveled at this film is that it is racist, and does not do enough credit to the Somali viewpoint. Bruckheimer has the best rebuttal to this when he reminds his listeners that this film presents a viewpoint, not every viewpoint. For all its realism and attention to historical accuracy, this is emphatically not a documentary. It is also somewhat telling that in the same week people in the U.S. were protesting the film as jingoistic or racist or whatnot, it was playing to packed houses in Somalia where the crowds cheered it as the story of their great victory over the Americans.
A more relevant criticism of the screenplay is that there is relatively little time spent on character development, and the audience gets little opportunity to identify with anyone apart from perhaps Josh Hartnett's solid, dependable Eversmann or Ewan McGregor's coffee-making Grimes. When attempts are made to individualize the characters, their personality quirks seem half-hearted and copied from any number of other war movies. For example, I doubt it will surprise anyone that the company jokester, the man who gets in trouble for imitating their commanding officer, is the first one to be killed. On the other hand, we must remember that the event of the film are based on reality; as it happened in Somalia in 1993, the first man to die really was a cut-up and acted the way he is shown in the film. There are other examples, such as the traditional scene where a man writes a "death letter" and gives it to his buddy to mail home in case something happens. It certainly feels like a cliché, but appears actually to have happened.
The larger issue here is the hyper-compressed nature of time in the film. We are watching 18 hours of combat compressed into less than three hours of screen time. Furthermore, we are outsiders, watching as men who already know each other like brothers, men who have trained together for months or years, execute a mission under tight military discipline. It seems to this reviewer that this is a situation that allows for very little expression of personality and individualism; taking more time to introduce us to the characters would have been a particularly egregious form of exposition that would not have been true to the nature of the story.
The Black Hawk Down Deluxe Edition seems almost designed to answer the criticisms of those who blast Scott for robbing the operation of its greater geopolitical context. The historical materials, the commentary by the veterans who were there, and the inclusion of author Bowden's perspective all give a greater depth and meaning to what might otherwise be just another war movie, no matter how well done.
Was it a victory? The men who were there say so. They accomplished their stated objective in the face of greater than expected adversity, and showed the traditional military ability to adapt, improvise, and overcome. Many in the public around the world, as well as the power structure in Washington, seemed to take a different view. It is a question that Black Hawk Down declines to answer, preferring to simply tell the tale of the American soldiers who were there.
Not guilty! While Black Hawk Down (and Ridley Scott himself) may have some detractors, I am not one of them. Columbia also goes free—a rarity in my courtroom—with an excellent collection of supplemental features and a technical presentation that still doesn't measure up to what other studios are doing, but is certainly better than their usual product. Now that we know what they are capable of, we will be watching them even closer than before.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Director Ridley Scott
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