Black Hawk Down
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Piven, Ron Eldard, Danny Hoch, and Brendan Sexton III
Director:

Ridley Scott

Writing credits: Ken Nolan
Distributor: Sony Pictures Entertainment
Rated: R for intense, realistic, and graphic war violence, and some language
Official Site: Click Here
IMDB Page: Click Here
  (USA 2001)

"Only the dead have seen the end of war."

Plato’s famous quote ominously opens Ridley Scott’s BLACK HAWK DOWN, a triumphantly stunning vision of the 1993 failed U.S. combat mission to restore order in Somalia. By the time the final credits roll, the audience may feel like Plato’s dead – witnesses to the intimate power and colossal savagery of War on all its participants.

The second major Hollywood release to explore America’s post-Vietnam military ventures (the first being 1999’s great, but odd, Three Kings), Scott’s impeccably-made drama similarly questions the merits, costs, consequences, and repercussions of American involvement abroad. That he does so with such flair, energy, and imagination simply reinforces what those who saw Thelma and Louise, Alien, Gladiator and Blade Runner knew some time ago – that Scott is one of the under-recognized masters of cinema. (It also makes a great apology for his early 2001 stinker, Hannibal.)

But let’s be clear – even with his impressive résumé, BLACK HAWK DOWN is truly something special. Dramatically taught, crisply shot and vibrantly visualized, this film deserves a place in the war film pantheon, alongside Saving Private Ryan, Patton, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and The Bridge Over The River Kwai. Its chief strength – chronicling the impact of battle on the individual psyche and one’s humanity – is reminiscent of the great Apocalypse Now. Like that masterpiece, BLACK HAWK DOWN captures the tenuous balance between war’s dueling perspectives: the intimate, human experience of the individual soldier, and the larger expansive canvas of warfare…a balance that many other films in the genre have struggled with. Rarely have the results been so clear, so expressive, and so devastating.

While the energetic battle sequences are riveting – often juggling three or four separate storylines simultaneously -- it's the small moments of pain and valor you may remember after leaving the theatre. In both instances, Scott's camera work is as good as it’s ever been. Such a large cast (nearly a dozen principles) could require an annotated bibliography to keep straight, but first time screenwriter Ken Nolan does an excellent job of presenting defined, unique characters. Scott makes sure that we also get the sense of shared experience, and of the bonds between men marked indelibly by battle.

The cast, for their part, deserves credit, too; it’s populated with an appetizing mix of seasoned professionals and fresh new faces, all working together seamlessly. Maj. Gen. William Garrison, who devised and led the raid upon Mogadishu’s inner city, is played with crusty warmth by Sam Shepard (Thunderheart); his measured cadence is a perfect choice, as is Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan), who should have a Doctorate Of Warfare Acting by this point. The film also includes fine turns by Ron Eldard (Bastard Out Of Carolina) as a pilot hostage, Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge) as an uprooted clerk, Jason Issacs (The Patriot) as a conflicted captain, and William Fichtner (Contact), Hollywood’s greatest character actor, as a determined squad leader.

The film, though, really belongs to Josh Hartnett (The Virgin Suicides, O). Hartnett emerges as a star in BLACK HAWK DOWN in a way that he could not while standing under Ben Affleck’s shadow in Pearl Harbor. Standing apart and distinct while also staying true to the ensemble nature of the film, he carries this film with assured grace. (A side note: Eric Bana, as the southern-fried rebel with a cause, makes quite an impression as well; his work here gives hope that his own star-making turn, in Ang Lee's forthcoming Incredible Hulk, will be spectacular.)

Surely, one could quibble over minor details. Although the pulsating score by Hans Zimmer is among his career best, it is intercut during attack sequences with mid-70’s classic rock castoffs – a choice that tries too hard to make Somalia echo Vietnam (or, more directly, echo Apocalypse Now). The film’s ending is also problematic, ringing emotionally false as it tries to encapsulate itself. By this point, we’re well past the need for patriotic platitudes -- we’ve seen the devastation, we’ve seen the acts of bravery, and they speak much more eloquently that any trite bits of summarizing dialogue. For most of its running time, BLACK HAWK DOWN is thankfully short of overblown sentimentality (a fault that capsized the year’s other major war film, Pearl Harbor). In its conclusion, however, it finds the urge to indulge in macho-man emotion too tempting to resist.

Nevertheless, these tiny faults do little to blunt the staggering impact of the film. The question is one Americans have rarely asked themselves – what does it mean to perform acts of heroism in what is clearly a misguided military failure? What does it mean when you're NOT the good guys? What good is a hero's rescue if they aren't wanted in the first place? In a mostly forgotten battle in an all but forgotten country, 19 Americans and 1,000 Somalis lost their lives seeking the answer. Thankfully, BLACK HAWK DOWN will forever keep their quest for the answer alive.

- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2001 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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