Black Hawk Down (2001)


Black Hawk Down

‘It’s about the facelessness of war!’ exclaimed a colleague. ‘The compositions are stunning, with action going on in the foreground and background. It’s a dynamic and apocalyptic visual experience!’ This, to me, is madness. Black Hawk Down has been mistaken, in its bloated self-importance, for being cinematically and politically relevant. Take away its timely guise of patriotism, and it’s a real horror show, more about murder than military prowess. Without the morally repellant ‘kill ‘em all’ subtext (young white boys mowing down the savages), you’re left with something merely incoherent.

Two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters go down in the mazelike streets of Mogadishu during a routine search-and-capture mission, leaving 100 G.I.’s stumbling around enemy territory with limited resources until the rescue Rangers show up. It’s been oft-compared to having almost two full hours of Steven Spielberg’s masterful 30-minute Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, which sounds good on paper only because Ryan suffered by following up its amazing visual prologue with a glut of character-driven monologues to invest personality within each soldier before he get killed. But Spielberg understood the basic precepts of documentary filmmaking: no matter how chaotic things got, we always understood where the soldiers were, and where they were going. Black Hawk Down, by removing exposition and cohesion, couldn’t care less.

Scott’s sloppiness as a filmmaker extends to the combat sequences themselves, a rain of explosions and dirt flying through the air as the good guys fire off at the enemy. The scenes are so disorganized that it’s nearly impossible to tell who anyone is (every actor has the same combat gear and crew-cuts, so Ewan McGregor could be Josh Hartnett could be Eric Bana), or what they’re shooting at. It’s no excuse to say that Scott is displaying how war is incomprehensible hell; he’s made a movie that’s practically unwatchable long before the shooting has started. The first 30-minutes of pure exposition (‘This is what we need to do, men…’) are just as sloppy, shoddy, and vague. Characters wander around listening to rock music, polishing their rifles, but nothing registers beyond images on a screen. They aren’t people, they’re objects within the frame. Sometimes, this is thematically consistent (experimental films do it all the time) — and if that’s what Scott is going for, he’s missing the point entirely. He’s not even providing a solid metaphor to back up the indifference to character (as Kubrick did for most of the soliders on Paris Island in the first half of Full Metal Jacket). If we don’t give a damn philosophically or emotionally in the early going, we surely won’t when sitting through courage under fire.

I especially felt pity for Ewan McGregor, a likeable actor even when he’s appearing in pure hokum. He made more of an impression as a sidelines-bound Obi-Wan in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, making asides to Liam Neeson, than he does in the whole of Black Hawk Down. He blends in with the other guys, only truly noticeable when he takes off his helmet and opens his mouth. That Scottish accent hasn’t really gone away, but we’re further helped that McGregor’s character seems based entirely around his love for good coffee. He mutters something or other about making the perfect cup of joe, then throws the helmet back on and blends in with the crowd (and good luck telling me which one he is; he looks the same as Pearl Harbor player Ewen Bremner, Lord of the Rings‘ Elfin archer Orlando Bloom, and The Patriot villain Jason Isaacs; oddly enough they’re all Brits playing American G.I.’s.)

Black Hawk Down‘s indifference to spatial relationships means we never understand where soldiers are in relationship to each other. Josh Hartnett and his team hole up in a hollowed out building, remembering the Alamo. Tom Sizemore and his truckloads of reinforcements are winding their way through the streets, en route to Hartnett, but it never matches up: how close are Sizemore and Hartnett to each other, how close are they to the Black Hawk choppers that went down? You’d think that with all the spycam equipment their general (Sam Shepard) has back in the barracks, we’d at least have some small understanding of what was going on. We don’t. That’s not showing chaos; it’s just chaotic.

Black plot down.