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[whitespace] 'Black Hawk Down'
Photograph by Sidney Baldwin

Battle Zone Jeremy Piven tries to fight his way out of 'Black Hawk Down.'

Coptering a Plea

Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer make a case for military intervention in 'Black Hawk Down'

By Richard von Busack

RIDLEY SCOTT'S new film, Black Hawk Down, plunges the viewer straight into the hornet's nest, offering a cinematic preview of what most agree will be the future of war: house-to-house fighting in an inner city.

"The dirtiest kind of war, the fastest game in town, the worst and roughest football field," says Scott in a Metro interview. In that sense, the film is the dirtiest kind of movie. It has the explicitness of the opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan without the redeeming goodness of the Good War, which pulled the punch of Spielberg's film.

Black Hawk Down lavishly re-creates the horrific debacle at Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 3, 1993, the biggest one-day loss of U.S. soldiers since the Vietnam war. Civilians may have a fuzzy recollection of TV footage of the soldiers' corpses paraded around by the foreign militias--and asking the question "What the hell are we doing in Somalia?"

As the film views the situation, the humanitarian intervention in Somalia was carried out with the best intentions. Scott and his producer, Jerry Bruckheimer--responsible for Pearl Harbor, Top Gun, etc.--set the matter up while in San Francisco to promote the picture.

"In this instance," Scott explains, "there was no subtext, no value to grabbing a footprint in Somalia. There's no oil there as far as we know. We went in because of the misbehavior of [warlord Mohamed Farrah] Aidid. Aidid discovered that famine is a subtle form of genocide. There's no bang when you kill them that way. People just melt into the ground."

Delta Force soldiers and Army Rangers flew in that morning, in four helicopters, to capture two of Aidid's assistants from their headquarters in the Baraka Market section of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. The raid was a success, but it was accomplished at the cost of 18 American soldiers, who died in the crash of two Black Hawk helicopters and the subsequent rescue attempt, which turned into an all-night siege.

Scott's film, based on the book by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden, does an excellent job of setting up the lay of the land. We see the Rangers and Delta Force under the command of General William Garrison (Sam Shepard). Ewan McGregor, playing a military clerk/typist recruited into rescue mission, guides us through the procedure of battle.

With the film running at high pitch and speed, and with the actors armored and bloody, none of the performers looks false. Maybe this is because none of them have to time to look false. The surrounded soldiers include the hulking Eric Bana (last seen in the title role in Chopper), Tom Sizemore, Josh Hartnett and Jeremy Piven.

Black Hawk Down has no backstory or romantic subplot, and there's no one larger-than-life hero who dominates the action. Thus, like John Irvin's similarly chaotic Vietnam film, Hamburger Hill, Black Hawk Down shows us the purer form of war picture. As he did in Blade Runner and Gladiator, Scott demonstrates his expertise in creating a landscape, a different world. In numberless ways, the film re-creates the events of reporter Bowden's investigation into the battle.

What Black Hawk Down misses, as critic David Thomson has noted in The New York Times--is the sense of a political context. The Mogadishu population on the ground didn't see the frightening beauty of the Black Hawk helicopters, which Scott's cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak records so lovingly. Rather, they hated these deadly hazards whose propellers blew the tin roofs off their shacks, injuring them in the process.

The Somalis in the movie are almost all killers, unless they're children who are running to greet the American soldiers. Missing is the incident (from Bowden's book) of a man named Kassim Sheik Mohamed trying to bury two of his dead friends, bystanders killed by artillery, and how American helicopters kept him from this task.

Thrill Ride

Though the film is thrilling, it still leaves the unanswered questions: Why were they so mad at us? Why did they drag those soldiers' bodies through the street?

Bruckheimer and Scott suggest that their purpose as entertainers kept these matters out of the picture. "The movie's told from the point of view of the Americans, not from [that of] the Somalis," Bruckheimer explains. "We're not making a documentary, and we didn't want to stop the tale. We do have Somali characters in the film: the moment of Osman Atto [played by George Harris] telling us that we don't belong there."

"Atto is currently vying for the premiership of the country," Scott adds. "So if we land in Somalia--and we have gun boats off there right now--we'll certainly meet Atto."

But Atto is a standard movie villain, the low point in the film. Through aviator shades, Harris stares down General Garrison, matching him cigar for cigar. Cuban, of course. The cigars of evil.

Bowden, who has studied the battle of Mogadishu the most closely, reaches a somewhat different conclusion about the Somalian intervention: "It's another lesson in the limits of what force accomplishes."

"With respect to Mark," Scott says testily, "that statement is 20-20 hindsight. I still say if I see women and children there who are dying, we should go out there, because we're the only ones qualified to do it. There's merit to the ideal of an army as a peacekeeping force that comes in, camps out and says, 'Don't do that or we'll slap your head.' Of course, you can just ignore genocide."

"As we did in Rwanda," Bruckheimer adds.

"And yet we ask, [Is] there another way of stopping it? How? Sending in nuns?" Scott says.

Both Scott--in G.I. Jane--and Bruckheimer--in his various blood-and-thunder action pictures--demonstrate a cinematic fascination with military life and weapons, although neither was in the service. "My job is to entertain," Scott says. "I tend to be drawn toward extremities. Extremities can transpire in science fiction, in some historical event. Where do you find that in normal walks of life? Cop films, Westerns and the army--the army represents a whole bibliography of extraordinary situations where you have normal people involved."

When asked about the military bent of his films, Bruckheimer replies, "You're always looking for a good tale to tell, and there's so much drama in life-and-death situations. In the military, it's real life and death, not manufactured."

Naturally, I have to ask the man who is probably the most successful film producer in history what he looks for when making a movie. "Great character and story," Bruckheimer replies, "but also the question, 'Is this a world I want to be part of for two hours?' "

Blame Game

Why would downtown Mogadishu be such a world? Black Hawk Down restages the battle for those seeking excitement, horror or, perhaps, a cinematic monument to the slain. It glides past question of responsibility. Like all great debacles, there's enough blame to go around.

Right-wing talk radio blamed typical U.N. leadership (UNinspired and UNready), even though our forces in Mogadishu were under U.S. Army leadership during the mission. Some blamed Clinton the Yellow-belly (distracted at the time by the matter of a looming nationalist coup in Russia).

Both General Garrison and Defense Undersecretary Les Aspin took Mogadishu seriously enough to resign. Bowden suggests that the soldiers' deaths occurred because of crucial but hardly flamboyant errors, mostly of communications and planning. No one reckoned how vulnerable the helicopters were to rocket-propelled grenades--light, cheap weapons fired by snipers lying in ditches in the ground. Nor did they count on the problems of relaying communications between helicopters and a train of Humvees directly below them.

Among the errors in military forecasting is one by Bowden himself. "The bloody twists and turns of Somali clan politics no longer concern us," he writes. Spoken too soon. As Scott notes, today our Navy hovers off the coast of Somalia. The question of Osama bin Laden's involvement in the training of the Mogadishu street fighters remains open; and the soldiers of Al Qaeda may be alive among the ruined streets of Mogadishu.

Scott says, "We debate, should you intervene? Should you leave them alone? Sept. 11 tells us you can't leave your blinkers on." So Black Hawk Down passes the current-events test. But the film passes an even more important test, one that is key to what makes a war movie justifiable to many these days: Can it be used for Army recruitment? Scott seems solemn as he mutters, "No." Bruckheimer counters, "This all depends at how you look at it. To a mother or a father, definitely not. To an 18- or 19-year-old, you'd see the bravery and courage of these young men. A lot of us like to test ourselves, and they'd see that."

The military must have anticipated the film being one of Bruckheimer's more traditional celebrations of valor, since they lent them 100 soldiers and several Black Hawk helicopters. (Getting these men and material was a debacle all its own: the short version is that several congressmen, and Jesse Helms, stepped in to ease the process.)

Onscreen, you can see the tension between Scott's fatalism and Bruckheimer's usual high-octane, star-spangled violence. The film successfully has it both ways, even at the cost of filling an audience with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it presents the soldiers as the heroes they were. On the other, in its gut-level violence, it provides a vivid warning of what the next few wars are going to look like.

The movie doesn't include this moment, but in Mogadishu, General Garrison dedicated a small monument to the slain with the "We Band of Brothers" speech from Shakespeare's Henry V. They're familiar words: "Those men afraid to go will think themselves lesser men as they hear of how we fought and died together."

This is the kind of sentiment that attracted Bruckheimer. Yet Black Hawk Down also possesses the spirit of a lesser-known Henry V speech, one that illuminates the last moments of soldiers: "Some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some thinking upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared there are few die well who die in battle."

Despite the rightness of the cause, or the urgency of action, it's a moral duty for a war film not to delude us with notions of honor and glory but to depict what happened, and what may come, as accurately as possible. Only then is such a film worthy of the soldiers brave enough to put themselves in harm's way.

Black Hawk Down (R; 143 min.), directed by Ridley Scott, written by Ken Nolan, based on the book by Mark Bowden, photographed by Slawomir Idziak and starring Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore and Sam Shepard, opens Friday.

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From the January 17-23, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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