Black Hawk Down Movie Review Essay Outline

Film Review: Black Hawk Down

Ronald L. Spiller is an assistant professor of history at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He is a veteran of twenty-nine years active and reserve service in the Army service in the United States, Europe and Asia. His assignments include duty with both 7th and 4th Psychological Operations Groups and with the US contingent of the UN Protection Force in Croatia. His research specialty is leadership and command method in the US Army.

Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott, 144 minutes, distributed by Sony Pictures

Ridley Scott's film version of Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down is a good war movie. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. You cry when these Americans die and cheer when the last Rangers double time into friendly territory. It is a hell of a story, maybe the equal of Roark's Drift. That much, at least, of Scott's vision of the events of 3-4 October 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia, is accurate. But Scott's Black Hawk is an MTV version of history. He simplifies the story and strips what has come to be called the "Battle of the Black Sea" of the cultural and institutional baggage that makes it an even more interesting and important event.

An outline of the background to the events of 3-4 October 1993 is fairly simple. The United Nations, in an attempt to alleviate human suffering in the political chaos of Somalia, established the "United Nations Organization in Somalia," UNOSOM, in April 1992. In the face of continuing chaos and violence targeted against the UN, the International Red Cross, and non-governmental relief agencies the UN expanded its mandate and presence. In November 1992 President George Bush committed US forces to security and relief operations in Somalia and the US-led Unified Task Force (UNITAF) came into being. By the spring of 1993 UNITAF strength had grown to 38,300 and included contingents from France, Canada, Italy, Morocco, Australia, Belgium, and Botswana. Two-thirds of UNITAF, however, were Americans, US Marines and elements of the Army's 10th Mountain Division. In March 1993 a reconstituted and re-organized UN structure began to replace UNITAF and in early May UNITAF Commander, Lt. Gen. Robert B. Johnson, USMC, turned over responsibility for humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Somalia to UNOSOM II. By then the US presence in Somalia had dropped to a 2,800-man logistical support unit and a 1,200-man reaction force.

Although the UN operated with success in the Somali countryside, the situation in Mogadishu deteriorated. Somalis loyal to Mohammed Farah Aidid, a leader of the Habr Gidr clan, opposed UN activities and, on 5 June, Aidid supporters ambushed Pakistani peacekeepers, killing twenty-five and wounding fifty-four. As a result the UN essentially outlawed Aidid and his United Somali Congress/Somali National Alliance (USC/SNA). The level of violence in Mogadishu escalated as UN and US forces moved aggressively against Aidid and his supporters. In August the new Clinton administration authorized deployment of Task Force RANGER to help implement Security Council Resolution 837. This resolution authorized the Secretary General to take "all necessary measures against all those responsible for the armed attacks" of 5 June. The climax of these operations, the story told in print by Bowden and on screen by Scott, is succinctly described in US Central Command's official version of operations in Somalia.

"The most significant combat action took place on October 3, when Task Force Ranger captured six of Aideed's [sic] lieutenants and several militiamen in a daylight raid. During withdrawal operations, the Somalis shot down two UH-60 helicopters and U.S. forces remaining on the ground came under heavy fire as they attempted to carry out rescue operations and consolidate their positions. During the intense firefight that followed, approximately 300 Somalis were killed and hundreds more were wounded. A total of 16 Rangers were killed and 83 wounded before a relief column of quick reaction force soldiers, Pakistanis, and Malaysians was able to withdraw the forces to safety early on October 4."

Ridley Scott puts his version of events into its broader political context at the beginning of his film with text vaguely reminiscent of Star Wars. As the camera pans across a devastated landscape peopled by shambling, starving black ghosts and Black Hawk rotor blades thump on the sound track, one learns just enough about the external situation to explain the presence of the "good guys." The good guys, in this case, are B Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Infantry (the Rangers), C Squadron of the Delta Force, elements of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) and SEAL Team 6, and Air Force Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) personnel. Scott moves on quickly to establish that the "bad guys" are, indeed, really bad. A Black Hawk circles over a UN food distribution site being raided by Aidid's men. US forces drop out of the sky and cleanly arrest Osman Otto, Aidid's finance chief, portrayed as a slick, sweating, cell phone carrying, Mr. Big. Otto offers Cuban cigars to Brigadier General William F. Garrison, the Task Force commander, played by Sam Shepard, who, of course, has his own Cuban cigars.

Scott moves on to introduce us to the good guys in more detail. The Rangers are young soldiers-very young-while the "D-boys" are older men, professionals certainly, but men who claim the right to operate outside the mundane regulations that afflict the Rangers. In the process Scott portrays the living conditions and professional environment of a deployed joint task force with some degree of impressionistic accuracy. The raucous atmosphere of a rusting hanger-turned-barracks, the seemingly detached calm of a good operations center, and the operational smoothness of confident men who understand their jobs are all portrayed reasonably well. The only fault one can find at this point is the flat, almost monochromatic quality of the cinematography, reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan. One would think the Mogadishu described by Bowden would have more color, or at least a lot more light.

Although a good war movie that remains superficially faithful to Bowden's descriptions of the basic actions of 3-4 October 1993, Black Hawk Down is a failure in terms of explaining some of the fundamental assumptions and conditions that underlay Task Force RANGER's operations. Scott's goal, obviously, was a commercially successful film, not a documentary. It is interesting to note the difference between Bowden's subtitle, A Story of Modern War, and the subtitle used in marketing the film, Leave No Man Behind. In a peculiar way Scott's oversimplification mirrors our own approach to operating in Mogadishu in 1993.

The great strength of Bowden's book and probably the reason it has been so well received by many military readers is his sympathetically objective portrayal of the men who conducted the operation. He describes the mistakes-the failure to take along night vision devices (NODs) and water, and the practice of removing the steel backplate from flack jackets. He discusses the Rangers' youth and inexperience. But he never strongly criticizes individual soldiers. Each reader draws his own conclusions based on his own agenda or set of prejudices. I am no exception. I am deeply irritated about aspects of Bowden's book that did not make it into Scott's version of the facts of 3-4 October. This was neither a botched military operation nor a manifestation of a sophomoric Clinton foreign policy. It was a tough, high-risk operation made more difficult by deeply held American visions of the world and an institutional culture that worships the concept of "elite" forces. Ridley Scott deals with little of this. His story is dramatic, appealing, and told very well. Scott presents this story in such a way that few members of the audience question the basic assumptions and operating principles behind the operation.

It takes little racial or ethnic sensitivity to recognize that an unconscious racism permeated the US presence in Mogadishu. In Bowden's account the Somalis are "Skinnies" or "Sammies." The Mogadishu stronghold of Aidid's clan is a neighborhood known as "The Black Sea." This is not a manifestation of overt racism, rather, a vision of cultural superiority little changed from the nineteenth century. This assumption of superiority is reinforced by a natural tendency of combat soldiers to demonize their adversary. Even Scott falls prey to this sort of stereotyping. The bad guys are almost universally portrayed as big, swaggering, sweating, (very) black men. Obviously in a country beset by a man-made famine the people might be characterized as skinny and the men in charge are well fed. Somalis are people of color and people do sweat in hot climates. The issue is not their accuracy but how these images are, and were, understood. It is not post-modernist cant or tired old anti-colonial rhetoric to ask this sort of question. This is a particularly important question when the men interpreting these images are "the cream, the most highly motivated soldiers of their generation, selected to fit the army's ideal," men who saw themselves as "predators, heavy metal avengers, unstoppable, invincible"-in the case of the Rangers, men whose average age was nineteen. Only twice in the film is there any indication that some of the Somali population was friendly to UN and US forces. In his operations briefing BG Garrison points out that part of the ground route will be through a friendly neighborhood and the troops are to adhere to the "rules of engagement." At the end of the film Somalis cheer the last Rangers as they make it home. I suspect that these provoke more ambivalence than understanding in an audience. Philosophically, "rules of engagement" are almost antithetical to the "American Way of War," and Somalis cheering for Americans is a completely incongruous image in the context of this film.

A particularly insidious undercurrent present within Task Force RANGER was the tension between the Rangers and the Delta Force soldiers. Bowden clearly describes the awestruck attitude of most of the young Rangers as well as some of the Delta soldiers' concern about the Rangers' lack of training. He also provides several examples of Delta Force soldiers' insubordination to orders from Ranger officers. Little of this tension makes it to the screen, however. What does is generally presented more as the sort of thing to which a "good" commander would turn a blind eye, or as part of the mystique of Delta, an organization too important to worry about routine rules and regulations.

Elite forces have always been a problem for the larger military community. By definition these men have a variety of qualities judged to be "better" that the "average" soldier. The problem is not that these men are better trained, more motivated, or in better physical shape than other soldiers. The problem is that much of the esprit of elite organizations is maintained at the cost of the image of the rest of the force-the "dirty legs" or whatever phrase is current at the time. Nevertheless, as long as elite forces formed only a small portion of the combat force and were used for narrowly defined missions they were manageable within the larger organization. But with the more highly specialized nature of US military operations in the post-Soviet world we see the proliferation of specialized-thus "elite"-forces. The US presence in Mogadishu presented the curious picture of elite forces stacked on top of each other. The UNOSOM II quick reaction force was composed of elements of the 10th Mountain Division, originally organized as one of the Army's elite, specialized World War II divisions. In the pecking order of today's specialized Army the 10th Mountain is almost special. It appears on US Special Operations Command's web page as a "related" Army unit. In the pecking order of "Mog" it was clearly not up to the task of eliminating Aidid. The Rangers, once the premier elite formation of the Army, were now, in turn, subordinate to the "D-boys." The Rangers were adolescent wannabes, in awe of the "real" professionals. None of this is woven into Scott's film. We see brave men fighting well in a situation they don't clearly understand and we see them survive and, in a sense, triumph.

As I said at the beginning this is a good war movie. But as a portrayal of history it reinforces some of the worst aspects of America's collective vision of the world and our understanding of military operations. We have been driven by these visions before. More than fifteen years ago Loren Baritz discussed these elements of American culture in Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. But in Black Hawk Down we celebrate ourselves and our ability to snatch victory from the jaws of confusion. For a target audience of males aged fifteen to thirty, Ridley Scott has produced a celebration of American courage and spirit without a serious explanation of why we were forced, in the end, to rely on those two very real American characteristics. Mark Bowden's complex tale of modern war has become a simple story about not leaving any man behind.

As I tried, with varying degrees of success, to sort through what I liked and disliked about this film, not always separating the film and the real event, one of my old students dropped by. This officer, just back from Afghanistan, did nothing to convince me that things are much different from our days in Mogadishu. Apparently we now call the Afghanis "Skinnies."

''BLACK HAWK DOWN'' has such distinctive visual aplomb that its jingoism starts to feel like part of its atmosphere. Establishing mood through pictorial means is the director Ridley Scott's most notable talent. There may be no working director more accomplished at wringing texture out of the color blue than the prodigious and now prolific Mr. Scott; you'd swear that with his dazzling washes of blues and sand tones, he was inventing additional hues on the spot. Because Mr. Scott's eye delivers so much information, he then is at a loss to give the material a proper emotional grounding. ''Black Hawk Down'' is like Mr. Scott's ''G.I. Jane'' but this time with an all-boy cast.

Sam Shepard, as Major General Garrison, seems to be smoking a Montecristo No. 2 primarily so that billowing clouds of Cuban smoke can register in the war room; it doesn't help that the cigar has been given as much characterization as anyone in the movie. There are plot flags visible beside Old Glory. As in ''Pearl Harbor,'' the battle in ''Black Hawk Down'' is an eye-catching misfire, color-coordinated down to the tracer rounds.

The film, whose title refers to downed military helicopters, dramatizes the failed United States mission to help relieve famine in Mogadishu, Somalia, late in 1992 by securing supply routes against Somali militias. Several hundred Somalis and 18 American soldiers lost their lives the next year in what was called the Battle of the Black Sea. The film was adapted from the best-selling account by Mark Bowden, which stacked up detail; Mr. Scott's slathering of visual elements is the pictorial correlative of the author's work.

The producer Jerry Bruckheimer seems to have been making Ridley Scott movies his entire career, but this is the first time he and Mr. Scott have collaborated. Tony Scott, Mr. Ridley's twin brother, teamed with Mr. Bruckheimer on movies like ''Top Gun,'' the gold -- or rather gold-filled -- standard for incoherent militaristic propaganda. ''Black Hawk Down'' is ''Top Gun'' on an all-protein diet. The soldiers, mostly ground troops, are much leaner than Tom Cruise was in that 1986 film, though they grin just as righteously.

The movie quickly sketches the broad parameters for the story: American troops, in Mogadishu as part of a United Nations peacekeeping effort, plan to kidnap members of the inner circle of Gen. Muhammad Farah Aidid, the Somali warlord. Lean, lissome white soldiers with teeth pearlier than their eyes prowl the streets looking to do damage -- all except sad-eyed Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), who smiles shyly and says he wants to make a difference. The vibrating melancholy of Hans Zimmer's score communicates the futility of Eversmann's proclamation. And when two helicopters are brought down and the mission is converted into a rescue, things get worse than anyone could have imagined.

''Black Hawk Down'' wants to be about something, and in the midst of the meticulously staged gunfire, the picture seems to choose futility arbitrarily. The handsomely staged gunplay and explosions, rigorously matched to exacting Dolby Digital in selected theaters, abound, while a cast of non-American actors like Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom try out their Yankee soldier accents, with vowels so oddly enunciated that you expect them to be singled out as foreign spies. Again, Mr. Scott spot-welds his extraordinary painterly application of talent to video game detachment; his ''Gladiator'' looked like a Play station 2 product designed by Bruegel. But the mercilessness here is gruesome.

In ''Black Hawk Down,'' the lack of characterization converts the Somalis into a pack of snarling dark-skinned beasts, gleefully pulling the Americans from their downed aircraft and stripping them. Intended or not, it reeks of glumly staged racism. The only African-American with lines, Specialist Kurth (Gabriel Casseus), is one of the American soldiers who want to get into the middle of the action; his lines communicate his simplistic gung-ho spirit. His presence in this military action raises questions of racial imbalance that ''Black Hawk Down'' couldn't even be bothered to acknowledge, let alone answer.

To make some obvious points about Western interests in oil, this picture imitates a few scenes in David O. Russell's remarkable 1999 war picture ''Three Kings,'' where the context was not sacrificed to politics. In ''Black Hawk Down,'' though, the backhanded attempt to provide the most minimal of contexts seems glib, as does Mr. Scott's skillful and facile handling of the action sequences, which supply an undeniably visceral excitement.

The actors are mostly called upon for the kind of ''it's a man's man's man's man's world'' sloganeering before heading off to fight that characterizes most Bruckheimer films: dated martial wisecracks of the ''Let's rock 'n' roll'' variety. (When Sean Connery coughed, ''Good to go'' in ''The Rock,'' it was the death knell of hip-hop as we know it.)

It's tiring to watch the actors, many of whom have appeared spouting these lines in previous Bruckheimer productions, doing the same thing; they're like rowdy guys who were left behind in Movie Star High School. This unintentional repetition fits, since sitting through the accomplished but meaningless ''Black Hawk Down'' is like being trapped in an action film version of ''Groundhog Day,'' condemned to sit through the same carnage over and over.

''Black Hawk Down'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for a barrage of violence, dismemberment and mayhem, and the usual accompanying panicked strong language.

BLACK HAWK DOWN

Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Ken Nolan, based on the book with that title by Mark Bowden; director of photography, Slawomir Idziak; edited by Pietro Scalia; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Arthur Max; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Mr. Scott; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 143 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Josh Hartnett (Eversmann), Ewan McGregor (Grimes), Tom Sizemore (McKnight), Eric Bana (Hoot), William Fichtner (Sanderson), Ewen Bremner (Nelson), Sam Shepard (Garrison), Gabriel Casseus (Kurth), Kim Coates (Wex), Hugh Dancy (Schmid), Ron Eldard (Durant), Ioan Gruffudd (Beales), Thomas Guiry (Yurek), Charlie Hofheimer (Smith), Danny Hoch (Pilla), Jason Isaacs (Steele), Zeljko Ivanek (Harrell), Glenn Morshower (Matthews), Jeremy Piven (Wolcott), Brendan Sexton III (Kowalewski), Johnny Strong (Shughart), Richard Tyson (Busch) and Orlando Bloom (Blackburn).

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