C. Antonio Romero
NEW YORK, 22 March 2002
- "Leave no man behind"— the promise the U.S. Army
Rangers and other forces make to each other. In prinicple, a noble and
powerful idea; sane men can go in harm's way, with faith that their
comrades will not leave their bodies for the dogs and birds to pick,
or for the enemy to defile. In practice, though, these unforgiving
words can have catastrophic consequences, at least, to judge from
Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer's Black Hawk Down. In
perhaps the grisliest warm film ever, Scott takes us into an American
military action gone wrong—probably the most mishandled, and
certainly the most important, of any since the Gulf War.
a botched 1991 operation in Mogadishu, Army Rangers and Delta Force
operatives, after taking into custody senior lieutenants of Somali "warlord"
Mohamed Farah Aidid, lose one man, then several, then a Black Hawk
helicopter, then another, then a fair portion of a convoy, then more—turning
this motto into the foundation for a perverse kind of domino theory.
Significant American losses are compounded by hundreds of deaths among
Somalis on the ground—some, innocent civilians out to gawk; many,
certainly, hostile; and, we know now, some trained by Al Qaeda as a
first test of the mettle and skills of American forces. Botched
tactics, botched strategy, and botched policy produced a bloodbath on
both sides and a humiliation for American forces, and paved the way,
we now know, for the Islamist terror campaign that culminated in the
11th attacks and today's war
In this incident Scott has found the
basis for his latest war story. Deploying, as usual, considerable
craft, Scott has created an assault upon the senses meant to reproduce
the extreme violence of the actual firefight. The gore is exceptional,
as bodies are subjected to violence those innocent of war can hardly
imagine—blown to clearly recognizable pieces by rocket-propelled
grenades (or, worse, impaled by an unexploded rocket); shredded by
minigun fire, cut in half with entrails tumbling down. Equally
striking is the depiction of the thorough confusion of the entire
operation—American forces get separated, fire on each other,
endless time is wasted as rescue convoys get lost among roadblocks and
back alleys, and struggle with erroneous driving directions from
ill-informed command staff—taking new casualties all the while.
Ultimately, the action slows to a glacial pace, as an American team
with UN escort works through the night to liberate corpses from a
downed Blackhawk, and then takes on a surreal edge, as Rangers running
back to the UN compound behind overcrowded APCs are greeted by
applauding Somalis and Pakistani waiters bearing refreshments.
film certainly succeeds on an impressionistic level, as a depiction of
the experience of urban combat. No viewer can avoid engaging with the
movie's assault upon the senses. The immersive quality of Scott's
creation will, it seems certain, raise the bar for such scenes, much
as The Matrix raised it for science-fiction action—it
will become a yardstick against which the wan creations of other
filmmakers will measure themselves. The brutality, absurdity, and even
the black humor of battle are driven home into your viscera.
it's not a thinking film. The problem starts with what the movie is
and isn't about. It's certainly not about characters, on either side.
(This is no fault of the actors, whose performances are more than
adequate.) After a few slick Bruckheimer-infused moments in the
barracks, perhaps meant to establish our heroes as a better class of
bad-ass— they play chess, draw, engage in other high-brow
pursuits—they're all thrown into the fog of war, where they
become so much indistinguishable meat for the grinder. There's no
remembering anyone's name from one scene to the next. Deltas are
visibly superior in training and ability to the much younger Rangers,
but individual Deltas don't particularly stick in the memory. The only
memorable group of Rangers, on the other hand, stands out mostly for
incompetence—they get lost, after forgetting to follow a passing
convoy for which they had stopped to provide covering fire. Their
difficulties as they try to find their way back to the convoy become
one of the few sources of dark humor in this bloody day.
Somali fighters and spectators who throng the streets around the crash
sites are even more schematic—a cross between spear-wielding Zulu
forces from some Brit-colonial epic and the denizens of some modern
combat-sim video game. Innocent gawkers and hostiles alike pop out
from behind corners, over the edges of rooftops, out of doors and
windows; from time to time, smoking, sunglass-wearing, RPG-wielding
bad-asses (low-brow type, no doubt) materialize to punctuate the
action,like the 'boss' at the end of a video game level. Few are
named, other than the targets of the raid. None are given a real
chance to become identifiable or voice a Somali perspective on events.
The friendly Somalis in the American and U.N.-controlled
areas of the city are treated no better, coming across as some
undifferentiated mass of African bodies out of Conrad at his worst.
(And calling the Somalis "skinnies" doesn't help humanize
them much either, though, presumably taken from life, the epithet
seems like a natural cousin to "hun," "nip," and "gook".)
Likewise, it's not about placing the operation in any
accurate historical or political context. Any strains upon the
U.S.-Somali relationship that arose when the mission shifted from
humanitarian relief to "nation-building" are elided. No
mention is made of a July U.S. rocket attack on the leadership of
Aidid's Habr Gidr clan, which may have killed as many as 70 of their
leaders; likewise no account is given of that clan's earlier brutal
attack on Pakistani U.N. forces, which left 20 dead, some skinned; and
there's certainly no attempt to look at the broader history of clan
warfare that led to the chaotic situation that led the UN and U.S. to
The few glimpses of Somali
politics—mostly, scenes of Somalis shooting up other Somalis over relief
supplies--make the Somalis seem motivated by little more than natural
perversity or greed. An American audience with no background—which,
frankly, would include most American audiences—would probably wonder what
the hell their boys were doing there in the first place.
And, finally, and
surprisingly, the al-Qaeda angle is completely absent. Perhaps
incorporating it would have seemed like crass opportunism—as if
rushing the film into release was not? Or, perhaps to do so would
suggest that America had, in fact, sound reasons to be militarily
involved abroad—an idea that the film seems to not want to
So if the film contains any lesson transcending its
bombardment of the senses, it is perhaps some meditation on the
tension between the ideal of leaving no man behind, and the brute
reality of the human suffering that follows from that absolute. The
soldiers accept the need to fight for their bretheren, even given the
questionable policies that have placed them all in harm's way. And
when one falls from a helicopter, the rest follows. And that's sad,
the film tells us. But the film doesn't offer us much critical
reflection beyond that facile obsevation.
Faced with the
horrors of the combat and little sense of America's stakes in the
situation, we're herded, it seems, towards the conclusion that
American blood shouldn't be shed in conflicts abroad that don't
directly involve us. Perhaps the movie was imagined at an earlier
moment, when an isolationist stance was still possible—when it
looked as if America could cleanly walk away from dark, distant places
of the earth, once it seemed like our interests were not at stake. But
as America fights on in Afghanistan,
as a result of an earlier failure to see and act beyond narrow Cold
War interests, this seems like the wrong lesson.
much skill Ridley Scott has poured into this film, then, and however
polished the result may be, the film's failure of ideas can't be
overlooked, in the world we live in now. What should have been an
important film turns out to be little more than an effects orgy.
and a half stars.
series in the Philadelphia Inquirer which eventually became the
book Black Hawk Down. Provides sorely-needed context for
understanding the events of the film.
account of the July 12 rocket attack on a meeting of Somali elders
which definitively set the Habr Gidr and the U.S. and UN on a
Somali reception of a bootleg screening of the film-- they cheered in all the "wrong" places.
Antonio Romero is the Nouveau editor of Culturekiosque.com.