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Black Hawk Down: Overwhelmingly Intense— and Ultimately Empty-headed


American troops arrive in Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down
American troops arrive in Mogadishu

American troops descend upon Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down

American troops descend upon Mogadishu

Ewan McGregor as Grimes in Black Hawk Down

Ewan McGregor as Grimes

Sam Shepard as Major General William F. Garrison in Black Hawk Down
Sam Shepard as Major General William F. Garrison

Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott
Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott

Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures

By 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.

In 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 September 11th attacks and today's war in Afghanistan.

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.

The 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.

But 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.

The 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 intervene.

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 explore.

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.

However 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.

Two and a half stars.

Useful links:

The series in the Philadelphia Inquirer which eventually became the book Black Hawk Down. Provides sorely-needed context for understanding the events of the film.

An 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 collision course

Recounts Somali reception of a bootleg screening of the film-- they cheered in all the "wrong" places.

C. Antonio Romero is the Nouveau editor of

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