BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001)

Let me get the thumb's up/thumb's down part of things out of the way first: Black Hawk Down is okay--it is, basically, Assault on Precinct 13 on a huge-ass budget, although I wish it had come within spitting distance of the economy of Assault's storytelling. The story of 123 elite U.S. soldiers who end up fighting for their lives (when an extraction mission goes wrong and leaves them stranded on the streets of a hostile quarter of Somalia) has a lot on its mind, trying to show exactly how a crack force with careful planning can have everything go particularly wrong and what that might say about American miliatry intervention, but falls back on b-movie expectations and cliches to see itself through (my favorite is the unstoppable silent guy dressed all in black that symbolizes the opposition). A lot of the fight scenes aren't particularly clear, which I know isn't the point, but I would have liked it if, as the American solidiers battling for their lives in the streets of Somalia got their bearing and their combat-smarts, so did the audience.

Because the movie has a lot on its plate and is based on real events, we don't really get a chance to identify with the characters very much--there's too many of them, they barely get a chance a scene apiece, and so the movie relies on the charisma of its stars to get you to identify with them, with mixed results. As the Staff Sargeant who ends up commanding his squad for the very first time on the fateful raid gone wrong, Josh Hartnett is very good--he manages to convey all of his character's guilt, frustration and fear without overplaying it an ounce. Every five years or so, some critic plays the Steve McQueen card, comparing somebody or other to the classic McQueen and inevitably it's a mistake--McQueen was an odd hybrid, the guy who managed to radiate both the psychic turmoil of the method actors and the inviolate coolness of the classic movie star in a way that was inspiring to watch--but in this and The Faculty (don't ask me about Pearl Harbor cuz I don't know), Hartnett comes the closest to McQueen I've seen in a long time. Ewan McGregor continues his slow morph into Kenneth Branagh here, except his accent isn't quite as assured--at some points, McGregor delivers his lines as if he was saying them into a cheap answering machine. Tom Sizemore, bless him, plays the Tom Sizemore role--the guy in war movies everyone calls Sarge--although it seems as if he may be branching out here by playing a Lt. Colonel, he's really just playing the Sarge character. (If I had the wherewithal, I'd write a longer essay on Sizemore's achievement; by appearing in the same role in so many similar movies, he somehow actually gains more, not less, authority each time he does it, which makes his characters' sad-eyed knowingness more convincing, thus lending him more authority the next time he does it. It's a beautiful little closed system.) Like Sizemore, there's a lot more guys throughout this movie, such as William Fichtner, that are like the Bruckheimer repertory players--playing small satisfying variations on roles they've played dozens of times before--and they all do a very good job. The only real x factor for me was Eric Bana, the Australian actor who rose to prominence recently in the Aussie movie Chopper (which I still haven't seen), who somehow manages to have the preening good looks of a gay porn star and the genuinely violent air of angry white trash at the same time. As a lone-wolf Delta Team member, Bana ends up feeling underused although he gets plenty of time onscreen and I have no idea what else they could have done with him. He has an odd presence--overly ersatz and yet more verisimilar than everyone else in the film--that means he could be a really huge star if anyone can figure out how to harness it.

As I said Black Hawk Down has a lot on its plate; so much so, it's never really quite clear whether it's sitting down for breakfast or dinner. For years now, Bruckheimer has been trying to have it both ways, fetishizing and idolizing military equipment and can-do blue collar guys in uniform and pumping you up with pride while also trying to get you to cry in your beer at the loss and sacrifice of the same guys, and here I think he actually gets what he wants. Director Ridley Scott has two scenes of the soldiers getting ready for action that he feels in almost the exact same way, but the first manages to be full of bravado and good cheer amped up by tension, and the second manages to be full of fear and exhaustion and sadness. Also jammed into this movie are scenes of Sam Shepard as the commanding officer watching everything get out of hand, arguments about the impossibility of intervensionism, very, very quick scenes introducing a lot of characters, plus all the choas and action, and a few well-spoken cronies of the African warlord that seem placed to prevent the movie from seeming blatantly racist.

Which, let's face it, Black Hawk Down is, although I guess I would make the case that it is the sort of institutionalized racism that the movie has to adhere to in order to "keep it real." I'm sure, for example, that because of the biases in the armed forces, most of the crack American forces involved in the actual incident actually were white guys, despite there being so many enlisted men and women of color. And I'm sure that because these were actual people being presented on screen, the producer and the director and etc. felt they couldn't just swap races. And so we have the movie Black Hawk Down which shows a bunch of white guys we sympathize with being swarmed by ferocious ebony skinned Africans for whom we feel nothing (brief scenes of well-spoken cronies of the African warlord notwithstanding) but fear. At one point, a crowd of Africans guns and then bludgeons a downed pilot to death and the man behind me actually said, out loud, "those animals!" In a movie that tried to pack itself with chilling moments, it was easily the most chilling moment for me. The movie also makes excellent use of lots of overhead shots of the carnage that, intentionally or not, manage to tap into the white guy group mind and evoke memories of the Rodney King riots. In some ways, it makes me glad that Black Hawk Down was released post-9/11 and so caught the wave of the U.S. war concern, because I don't like what a lot of white people leaving the theater might have otherwise had on their mind.

So, on the white guy liberal scale, Black Hawk Down ranks a solid antsy--you could probably go to a lot of other movies on the market and walk out less conflicted. And, on the film geek scale, Black Hawk Down ranks a solid derivative--Assault on Precinct 13 did this all much better on a thousandth of the budget. Which means overall, that as American movies currently go, Black Hawk Down is far from the worst thing on the market, and might be worthy sneaking in to, or paying matinee price for. But if this puppy actually nails all the Oscar nominations some industry voices thought it originally would, I'll be one sad one white guy liberal film geek.

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All written material on these pages is © 2002 by Jeff Lester. With the exception of non-profit distribution, all other rights are reserved.