When talking about war movies, there are many great ones that immediately spring to mind. Since the 70's, three of them have formed a bit of a holy trinity: Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. These three movies have set the bar for all other war movies that have come along since then. When it was announced that Gladiator director, Ridley Scott, would be adapting Mark Bowden's book, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, filmgoers knew that they would be in for a treat.
For whatever reason, I don't remember hearing much about the civil war in Somalia or about the Battle of Mogadishu on which Black Hawk Down is based. The plan seemed simple enough: the Army is sent into Somalia by the government to try to put an end to the Civil War. On October 3, 1993, a group of them were sent on a quick mission to capture the Somali warlord that had been running the country with an iron fist. It didn't take long for the operation to go completely FUBAR as two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. Things went from bad to worse, as the Rangers found themselves surrounded by thousands of armed Somalis, whose only goal was to shoot any American soldier that invaded their space. After "stirring up the hornet's nest", the mission becomes a desperate attempt to maintain the Rangers motto, "Leave No Man Behind".
Needless to say, Ridley Scott has made the ultimate war movie with Black Hawk Down. Unlike some war films that temper the battle with slower character-building sequences, you have to wait only thirty minutes for the Rangers' mission to go into effect. And the action doesn't stop for the next two hours, as the rest of the movie is filled with flying bullets, explosions and bloodshed. The fighting is so chaotic that it is hard to follow the action and tell what is happening, at times, and it becomes almost too easy to become desensitized to the violence. By the third time someone yells "RPG's!" though, the entire audience knows to duck and cover their ears.
While the American soldiers go in with a solid plan, it doesn't take long for panic to set in, and pretty soon, you're not sure which side is more disorganized. It's amazing to watch what seems like thousands of extras playing the Somali militia swarming over the soldiers, and the action and camerawork is reminiscent of a video game as the soldiers try to escape their precarious situation through the streets of Mogadishu. As the movie progresses, the tension continues to build as the grim and unrelenting hopelessness of the situation sets in both for the soldiers and the viewer.
It's pretty amazing how much has been made of the 19 downed American soldiers when over 1000 Somali men, women, and children were killed during the raid. While the movie is clearly weighed towards the American perspective, I can't imagine how it must have felt to be the guy who gets to play "Dead Somali with a Gun #354".
Although characterization has always been used extensively in war movies to get the viewer to care about the characters, Black Hawk Down works better because, for the most part, the soldiers are personified as little more than grunts in the field doing the bidding of their superiors. At least the soldiers had their names taped to their helmets, so that this didn't have the problem of some war movies, where it's sometimes hard to tell who is who. Some of the best performances of the film come from Tom Sizemore as the gung-ho Lt. McKnight and Josh Hartnett, who plays the sergeant who leads the mission and feels personal guilt every time a man is lost. Sam Shepard also is excellent as Major General William Garrison, who sits back in the safe zone watching his doomed men be overpowered by the enemy. Eric Bana's part is small, but he has some of the best lines in the film, really driving home the point of why soldiers do what they do. Ewan McGregor's role is even more minor and insignificant, but his Trainspotting compatriot, Ewen Bremner offers the movie's little bit of comic relief.
As expected in a Ridley Scott film, the visuals and camerawork are stunning with the movie having a gray almost monochromatic look that makes the orange flames and red blood really stand out. As is typical in Scott's recent movies, there is lots of flying dust, rubble and debris mixed with slow motion shots of falling bullet casings and splattered blood. He also uses animals and non-military personnel well in some of the shots to show that this firefight is happening in the middle of a populated market district.
A big deal has been made out of the blood and gore in Black Hawk Down, but what is any true war movie without it? Though most of the graphic violence on display is not far beyond Saving Private Ryan, there is at least one visceral sequence that will make most people squeamish, unless they watch those operation shows on The Learning Channel for entertainment. Black Hawk Down is quite an achievement in creating a realistic representation of an event in recent history. Most of this movie leaves the viewer aghast and incredulous of what they're watching, and it's hard to believe that something like this could possibly happen. Technically, this movie is an amazing feat that gives the viewer one of the most realistic impressions of what it would feel like to be in the middle of a war, which makes the atrocities of the event seem all the more real.
In a genre that has brought out some of the best in directors and actors, Black Hawk Down is easily the best war movie ever made, and it has replaced A Beautiful Mind as my candidate for Best Picture and Director.
Rating: 10 out of 10