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All hawk, no dove

Black Hawk Down puts audience in line of fire


We view Black Hawk Down differently now than we would had the movie been released before Sept. 11. Harrowing battle scenes and thin characterization mark Ridley Scott's soldier's-eye view account of the disastrous U.S. endeavor in Somalia, which saw 19 Americans -- and hundreds of Somalis -- lose their lives when a seemingly simple mission went horribly awry.

The film was produced before the war in Afghanistan, and in the current global climate, it's no longer just about an incident from Oct. 3, 1993. With U.S. troops currently deployed overseas, Black Hawk Down is also about what's going on today and what could happen tomorrow. If America continues to pursue the war on terror, our soldiers run the risk of encountering situations very much like those in the film. To see such worst-case scenarios captured in unsparing detail is a valuable service.

Based on Mark Bowden's best seller of the same name, Black Hawk Down begins with a brief primer on Somalia, in the early 1990s suffering from a famine of biblical proportions and the tyranny of warlords like Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Ken Nolan's script all but ignores the foreign policy issues (and such details like the involvement of al-Qaeda in arming the warlords), and instead focuses on the perspective of the troops on the ground, who call Mogadishu "The Mog" and native residents "the skinnies."

The first 40 minutes set the stage and introduce so many soldiers, we scarcely get the chance to tell them apart -- we do best with famous faces like Ewan McGregor and Tom Sizemore. Two men at the center are Josh Hartnett's idealistic Sgt. Eversmann, who wants to "make a difference" in the lives of the natives, and Chopper's Eric Bana as Sgt. Hooten, who has the marksmanship to back up his badass swagger.

The idle time identifies rivalries between U.S. Rangers and Delta Forces, and mini-conflicts like McGregor's itch to escape his desk job. Then the troops get assigned to invade a neighborhood controlled by Aidid to capture two of his lieutenants at a hotel meeting. Expecting the trip to last less than an hour, the soldiers leave behind their water and night-vision goggles. But they encounter unexpected resistance from heavily armed Somalis, who eventually use rocket-propelled grenades to bring down two Black Hawk helicopters. From then on, Black Hawk Down is nearly non-stop combat, loud and grisly, with 99 soldiers pinned down overnight. The film takes note of the endless number of ways you can be killed and maimed in battle, from hearing loss to surgery in the field. The first casualty is a soldier who falls from a helicopter under fire, disappearing into a dust storm that symbolizes the chaos to come.

A cinematic stylist above all else, Scott is in his element with Black Hawk Down, rendering the streets of Mogadishu as a war zone worthy of the Mad Max movies. Cinematographer Slavomir Idziak offers mournful shots of desiccated villages and crisp aerial photography of all-but-demolished neighborhoods. At times the action turns surreal, as stray dogs and even a lone donkey pulling a cart suddenly appear in the battleground.

The film reveals the incredible powers -- and limitations -- of modern communications during fire-fights. In scenes that eventually grow repetitive, Sam Shepard's Maj. Gen. Garrison maintains the command post, where he can see the target areas from surveillance cameras and monitor the radio communications. But the high-tech equipment merely magnifies the incoherence of a mission gone wrong. One bravura shot shows an overhead view of a crashed helicopter, which gives way to a black-and-white video image.

Identifying the exact time when the troops set down and the first rescue attempts fail, Black Hawk Down's greatest strength is the way it makes you feel as though you're right by the side of the soldiers under fire. It resembles HBO's World War II series "Band of Brothers," with a similar use of hand-held cameras and focus sharp enough to capture every piece of flying shrapnel. And like that series, Black Hawk Down has such a big cast, many based on real people, that the performances blur together and you invest little stake in the characters.

The film withholds judgment on whether the U.S. should have been in Somalia in the first place. Two scenes have intimidating Africans explaining to American military men their naivete, with one asking a captured U.S. pilot (Ron Eldard) if he really believes that Aidid's capture will mean Somalia will embrace American-style democracy. Those are the only scenes that give voice to the Somalis, who otherwise appear as angry mobs and occasionally starving civilians.

Black Hawk Down ultimately espouses a philosophy of being "against the war, but for the troops." The most touching aspect of its "leave no man behind" ethos is the eagerness of the reinforcements to form rescue parties, despite the potential risk of their own lives: Even an asthmatic soldier wants to join in. Audiences can thus read the film as being either patriotic or critical of the military, just as they can bemoan its gaps in history or applaud its value to current events. Black Hawk Down ultimately rises or falls based on what you bring to it.

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