Sunday 8 May 2016

Movie Review: Black Hawk Down (2001)

Based on real events, Black Hawk Down is a stellar war movie. The depiction of the Battle of Mogadishu is a stirring story of a mission gone wrong, and the men who had to subsequently rescue each other and limit the damage.

It's October 1993, and US forces including Army Rangers and elite Delta Force troops are stationed in Mogadishu, Somalia. Initially deployed on a famine relief mission, the US military is getting embroiled in a local civil war among squabbling warlords who do not hesitate to use starvation as a weapon. Powerful militia leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid is designated as the worst of the bad guys. Delta Force operators do capture arms dealer Osman Ali Atto (George Harris), but are no closer to shutting down Aidid's operation.

Based on sketchy intelligence, Major William Garrison (Sam Shepard) hurriedly cobbles together a mission to try and capture Aidid and his top aides while they meet at a safe house. American troops backed by helicopters leave the safety of their airport headquarters and delve into the dense Aidid stronghold of Bakaara Market within the labyrinthine confines of Mogadishu. Intended to last less than an hour, everything that can go wrong on the mission does go wrong, with thousands of militiamen taking up arms against the small American extraction team and shooting down two Black Hawk helicopters. The American forces get caught in a nightlong quagmire, incurring heavy losses while they try to rescue fallen soldiers and escape from a city filled with countless enemies.

Directed by Ridley Scott and based on the best-selling book by Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down is an exhilarating war movie. After a slowish start to establish the premise, the film explodes into an unrelenting two hours of non-stop intensity as the battle is covered from several angles. As far as representing the grim agony of street warfare in third world cities against overwhelming opposing forces, the film stands a class apart. Scott and cinematographer SÅ‚awomir Idziak capture the chaos, confusion and danger-around-every-corner that characterizes modern urban warfare.

Soldiers are separated from each other, seemingly straightforward tasks like getting to the crash sites and rescuing the pilots turn into cascading disasters, with the rescuers needing rescue. Every block is a battleground, every window, doorway and rooftop a source of danger. Soldiers perform impromptu surgery, while others push ahead despite wounds and exposure to comrades killed under horrific circumstances. The film rams home both the insanity of war and the courage of the men who make it their profession.

Black Hawk Down does get a few things wrong. The Somalis are all faceless hordes, the definition of a blood thirsty enemy presented with no context. Back in the early 1950s Hollywood started to humanize natives in Westerns and then Germans in World War II movies. To produce a 2001 film without a modicum of perspective on what the other side is willing to die for is quite myopic.

Also relatively poor is the lack of distinction among the American fighting men. Josh Harnett, Tom Sizemore and Eric Bana emerge as individuals due to defined character traits, but the rest of the men are effectively interchangeable, and once bulked up in equipment and helmets, they all look the same. The large cast includes Orlando Bloom, Ewan McGregor, Tom Hardy, Jeremy Piven and William Fichtner.

But the objective of the film is to celebrate the armed forces, and to snatch a moral victory out of an astounding defeat which carried huge local tactical and overall strategic resonance. After the Mogadishu humiliation the US was seen as weak, defeatable, and quick to cut and run. But at the level of the fighting men, Black Hawk Down does reinforce the one-for-all and all-for-one ethos of the military, the heroic sacrifices, and no-man-left-behind principles. Against overwhelming odds the street battles feature countless examples of men risking their lives to help others, a band of brothers mentality that turns individuals into an army.

Loud, severe and imperfect, Black Hawk Down passionately captures the ugly realities of war as waged in hostile cities.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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