All To Real

'Black Hawk Down' brings audiences close to the deadly action of battle and the bravery of a company of men

January 18, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Two sentences near the start of Mark Bowden's lucid war book Black Hawk Down snag a reader's attention like a fence catching a pants cuff. Describing the mind-set of General Garrison, the commander of the U.S. forces in Somalia in 1993, Bowden writes: "Garrison and his staff probably had more instant information about this unfolding battle than any commanders in history, but there wasn't much they could do but watch and listen. So long as things stayed on course, any decisions would be made by the men in the fight."

Any decisions would be made by the men in the fight. As the story goes on, the "instant information" from on high does clash with the reality of the street, where noncombatants and militia mix in a volatile mass. A planned 45-minute snatch-and-grab of a Somali warlord's top lieutenants turns into a 17-hour battle because of a string of casualties and the downing of two helicopters. The men in the field are on their own.

People scared of the graphic realism in the movie version of Black Hawk Down may wonder what they can learn from seeing a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of the Black Sea in Mogadishu, which left 18 Americans dead and 73 injured. The answer is simple: it will explode their preconceptions of contemporary war.

The American military's emphasis on missiles and bombing and its strictures on reporters have put news-watchers in the position of a general in a command post: observing distant or symbolic images that convey the movement of forces and the demolition of targets without urgency or immediacy. Because of propaganda about super-choppers and smart bombs, we've grown complacent about the Americans manning, guarding and moving behind or underneath all that technology. A single casualty of our own registers as an affront and a shock.

Black Hawk Down dramatizes how lucky we have been to suffer so few losses. And it does so in a way that honors civilian sensitivity to the costs of war as well as the part of the U.S. Army Rangers' creed that goes, "I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy." The great virtue of this movie is that it brings to life - and to twitching, heartrending death - the experience of soldiers at mortal risk making possible the maneuvers that too often are presented as mechanical miracles.

The battle has gone down in popular memory as a debacle in which American servicemen were stripped naked and dragged through the dust. But the movie (like the book) reveals that this conflagration, the fiercest pitched encounter since the Vietnam War, might have been counted as a victory - especially if the United States hadn't panicked afterward and pulled out.

Delta Force operators were able to extract top aides to warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid; along with U.S. Army Rangers, they also eliminated more than 500 Somali fighters. Black Hawk Down is a tribute to the decisions made by the men in the fight, and their astounding fortitude and courage in carrying them out.

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan provide minimal political context: U.N. and U.S. forces were trying to make sure humanitarian aid got to the victims of famine; Aidid was trying to thwart their efforts and control the food supply for his own political advantage.

The moviemakers barely individualize the men before they enter Mogadishu's Bakara Market, right next to the center of Aidid's clan and militia. And the actions of some characters have been altered or extended from Bowden's nonfiction chronicle. But from Sam Shepard's General Garrison on down, the actors succeed in reflecting not just the general truth, but also most of the specifics of the battle.

Josh Harnett shows mature vulnerability as an idealistic Ranger sergeant, a first-time group leader whose plans go awry because one of his men plummets to the ground from his helicopter's rope. The sometimes over-the-top Tom Sizemore brings the right mulish intensity to the role of a Ranger in charge of Humvees that become a column of mobile wounded. And Eric Bana imbues a Delta Force ace with a gritty, swashbuckling aura that epitomizes battle-hardened confidence.

But what makes the film work is that the audience grows to see the Americans as one great mass character - confused, selfless, valiant and riding on adrenaline waves that can't be separated from their fear. The two Delta Force daredevils willing to face hundreds of Somalis alone to defend a wounded pilot, or the handful of Deltas who jump out of a convoy and approach a crashed chopper on foot, work in the same spirit as the Rangers who hold their positions for two-thirds of a day or plunge their hands into a downed comrade's pelvis to grab and clamp a retracted artery.

An old putdown of action directors is to call them traffic cops. Here, Ridley Scott works as a traffic cop of brilliance. Keep alert, and you can follow the action in all its eddies and dead ends.

Scott still tends to pile on effects; a movie of this intensity doesn't need a buzzing score augmenting all the bursting shells. And a director with a more natural touch might have achieved this film's peaks of horror without having audiences feel that he and his team (as well as Aidid and his warriors) are compelling them to run the gauntlet.

Black Hawk Down, in the end, is a docudrama. But it's sensationally well done, and it opens up a battlefield that needed to be documented.

Black Hawk Down

Starring Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore, Ewan McGregor and Sam Shepard

Directed by Ridley Scott

Rated R (violence, adult language)

Released by Sony

Running time 143 minutes

Sun score ***

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