Cinema Signal:

At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda

. "Black Hawk Down"

It's probably correct to say that most Americans feel pain when an American is killed on foreign soil. Most of us know what happened in Somalia, how some of the creatures that inhabit that place treated our men when their helicopter went down and they were captured. So, one needs to ask why a re-creation of that event should be made into a motion picture. We've had documentaries. So what is it, a true disaster turned into an entertainment? Or is it a microscopic look at a tragedy for the sake of a teenage audience that goes ape over action, bombast, violence, the shredding of human bodies and the depiction of sudden death no matter what it's based on.

That's what I expected when I saw it and that's what it was.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has never been soft on making oodles of boxoffice money by pandering to this crowd -- one that won't be able to associate what they see on screen with the deaths of real-life American heroes. So long as it has the loudest, the fiercest, the most energetic displays of mayhem and blood. That's who he green lighted it for and that's who'll love "Black Hawk Down". Plus, perhaps, some military people. There's some controversy amongst the ranks as to the truthfulness and reality of this footage, but some seem to think it's an accurate depiction of real combat. Well, no one's saying director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") doesn't have what it takes to make it that way.

Scott has considerable skill in movies of force, ferocity and fire power. Here, he and screenwriter Ken Nolan, working from Mark Bowden's book, have done a smart thing by studying what makes action movies successful or not. They know the critical need for the audience to connect on an emotional level with at least one character. To accomplish that in preparation for the storm of action to follow, they spend a considerable time in the introductory phase of the drama to present the men we are to tie on to.

There's Josh Hartnett as Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann who we are to sypathize with because he has had leadership of his squad thrust upon him; there's Ewan McGregor as Company Clerk John Grimes and the ever present (in war movies) Tom Sizemore as Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight. Sam Shepard plays the commander who gave the orders for the operation, Major General William Garrison and, of course, many others. But the problem is, this is no "Ocean's Eleven" or "The Dirty Dozen" which pulls off this character caring with classic proficiency and which should be the model for multi-hero adventure yarns.

But it wasn't. Beyond the fact that they're representing eager American fighting men, there isn't enough individuality to warm hearts. When push comes to attack, it's just a lot of macho guys pouring their collective energies into bringing the real life incident to screen life. Whatever level of sympathy is evoked is not enough to counter balance the sheer resentment some of us might feel at this attempt to make commercial hay out of a huge military tragedy of our time.

The plan seemed simple enough: the Army is sent into Somalia by the U.S. government to try to put an end to the Civil War and the anarchy raging there. On October 3, 1993, a group of highly trained rangers were sent on a three week mission to capture Aidid, the Somali warlord who had become dominant among many smaller, less well financed warlords. He was the small time tyrant who was most in the way of our installing some order and purpose over the pervading chaos.

But, in the enterprise to capture Aidid's staff in a particularly lawless area of Mogadishu, a Black Hawk helicopter is shot down. The downed Rangers find themselves on the ground, surrounded by thousands of armed Somalis, whose only goal is to shoot anyone who dares invade their country and threaten their control. After "stirring up the hornet's nest", the mission becomes a desperate attempt to maintain the Rangers motto, "Leave No Man Behind".

But the better organized American troops fall apart in the panic as the local armed militia swarm them. Initiative turns into escape by any means possible, which is not a pattern for military success. The inevitability of loss was set by the impossible odds, indicated by the stats of 1000 Somalis dead in the action and 19 GIs. The flaw was in giving inadequate weight to the possibility of a helicopter being shot down and, it seems (from the comfort of an armchair) to be a gross miscalculation to send so vulnerable a set of machines into an area where high powered armaments saturated the streets.

The staging, casting and military details are tops for this kind of action, with the best attention paid to the hordes of Somali extras employed to recreate guerilla warfare. The level of believability is immense, aided so well by the ultra realistic, sometimes muted camerawork of cinematographer Slavomir Idziak ("Proof of Life"). His work here has a kinship with combat photography, achieved through a kind of controlled rawness.

Ridley Scott continues to demonstrate his taste for flying dust, rubble and debris mixed with slow motion shots of falling bullet casings and splattered blood in creating his concussive realities. These stylistic choices pay off so well for this kind of subject matter. Would that they weren't in the service of so painfully actual an experience as the loss of our men in a country to whom the Geneva Convention is as meaningful as a discharge of cordite.

Estimated cost: $92,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $110,000,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Opinion Section
Quotes from outside:
In "Letters", L.A. Times Calendar reader Charles Degelman compared this film with another one directed by Ridley Scott: "Alien". Here is an excerpt.

  "Alien" lavished great intelligence and care on its characters, the world 
they lived in, and the motives that drove them to their tragic and heroic 
  "Black Hawk Down" was so anxious to get to the slaughter that it ignored 
character development and waived any explanation of the circumstances that 
pitted Somalis against Americans.  As a result, when Americans die, you can't 
feel anything -- you don't even know who they are.  When Somalis die, they 
are dead bugs.
  In "Alien," corporate greed and duplicity were held responsible for 
putting the astonauts in harm's way.
  In "Black Hawk Down," we never learn what put anyone -- the Marines or the 
Somalis -- in harm's way.  The only thing that gets respect in this flick is 
the machinery -- guns, choppers and editing equipment.

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