Black Hawk Down - rated - HOT! HOT! HOT!

War is Hell

Was it Godard who said that everyone watching the same film sees a different film?

If that's the case, then I saw a different film from most of the commentators on Black Hawk Down. I loved the film, thought it was anti-war and saw it as highly critical of the current "War Against Terrorism." I also saw it as a brave attempt to put modern warfare in a historical context (this is, after all, the director of Gladiator). How can this be, when many people thought it glorified war, and simplified the politics of the story to "us (America) vs them (the Somalis)?

Well first, although I am a film fanatic and not an exceptionally close observer of the world scene, even I know that there was no such thing as "the Somalis". There were several factions - the country was in the midst of civil war, for heaven's sake. Mohamed Farrah Aidid was stealing food from his own starving people. Scott makes that quite clear. In fact, although he does concentrate very closely on the story of the Americans, he also shows the Somalis in several different ways - warlords and their fierce warriors, plotting politicians, kids on mobile phones warning the Somali militia of the approach of the Black Hawks (the Americans didn't have a chance), innocent civilians caught up in the fighting (in one moving scene, an innocent family surprised by the sudden entry of an American soldier to their devastated home), crowds cheering the Americans, and so on.

I think the movie illustrates the classic dilemma of the filmmaker. They set out to make a film, and people criticise it because it they wanted to see a different film. People seem to have wanted to see a film which dealt with the politics behind the Black Hawk Down incident. They wanted to hear about Clinton's involvement, and why America was there in the first place. It is true that there is almost none of that. But director Ridley Scott says in his defence that he was filming the book, by Mark Bowden, and none of that was in the book. It's a fair point. And I, for one, found the film fascinating even without the political background. I found more than enough political content in the subtext.

You only need to read the quote Scott uses at the beginning of the film to understand his theme: " 'Only the dead have seen the end of war' - Plato". "There will always be war," Scott seems to be saying. "I am going to show you how it works. How it is always the young men who suffer, and are brave. And how the top brass will always promise you a clean war, but in the end war is always messy, always dirty, and never goes the way you planned it." As Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight (played by Tom Sizemore, in another bravura performance) says, "Nothing takes 5 minutes."

And so Scott shows us the stories of several young men: Josh Hartnett, Ewan Mackenzie, William Fichtner, and our Eric Bana in a standout heroic role. We get to know them only briefly, and sometimes they seem interchangeable or get confused together, but I think that is intentional. They are young men, professional soldiers, and this war is their job.

We also see the senior soldiers (represented mainly by Sam Shepard) who are calling the shots. Theirs is a job removed from the action, and they are prepared to move their soldiers around like chessmen, losing them here and there for strategic or even symbolic reasons: "We leave no one behind" they say. At one point Shepard's general is seen actually physically mopping up blood. If that's not a damning symbolism, I don't know what is.

As a spectacle, this film is, well, spectacular! The Hans Zimmer score is very effective, and visually the film is stunning. The whole soundtrack is very loud, but as virtually the whole film is of ear, this is appropriate. I came out of the film feeling pretty shell-shocked. When the Black Hawks take off, about a third of the way into the film, you wonder how Scott is going to top the Apocalypse Now "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence. Well I think he's given it a great shot: the soundtrack is saturated with violins & percussion & sibilance, and the photography and framing of the shots are amazing: single file shots making the helicopters look so close to each other that they are touching! It's a great moment in cinema. Zimmer selects a version of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" to accompany the troops as they approach battleground "Irene." And throughout the film he uses tribal drumming to great effect.

The setting itself is amazing. I understand Scott built part of Mogadishu so that he could actually crash helicopters into the set, so the crashes would be real. The set is detailed, and looks spookily like the set Kubrick used in the second half of Full Metal Jacket (a film I saw again recently and liked even more the second time). One other visual effect in particular deserves a mention: in some scenes of explosions, papers fly everywhere. It reminded me of the explosions at the World Trade Centre, when paper rained down from the sky.

Scott shows us the thick of the battle and then, every so often, cuts to a closeup of a soldier, usually American, often wounded. Thus he keeps reminding us of the human, the micro scale (and cost) of war. "Look at this" he seems to be saying. "This is real". In one case he shows us a man go deaf because of the firing of a gun next to his head. It is almost comical, but it brings you up with a start - how do you fight a war if you are deaf? Scott shows us the confusion of war brilliantly. Even the end of the action is confusing, as waiters appear with trays of drinks, as if it were a cricket match!

By the end of the film, I had what I thought was its message loud and clear. But Scott rammed it home. He has Josh Hartnett say: "The people at home, they won't understand. It's about the man next to you - that's all it is". And then something like: "No one sets out to be a hero. It just happens to you." I thought this was gilding the lily, but apparently some people still didn't get the message. So to emphasis it still further, he chooses for the music for the closing titles the old Irish folk song "The Minstrel Boy" As I remember it, the lyrics are:

"The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone.
In the ranks of death you will find him.
His father's sword he hath girded on
And his wild harp slung behind him"

In other words, there has always been war, and it has always be fought by the young, and they will always die tragically. We must know that this is the price of war. The Generals will always tell us that they can achieve anything, and we must know that that is a lie, even in the 21st century, and even fighting a "primitive" people. I think Black Hawk Down is a brave attempt at a historical perspective on modern warfare. I rank it with Apocalypse Now, Three Kings , Platoon and Full Metal Jacket as one of the best films about modern warfare.

© Michèle M Asprey 2002

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