The Black Hawk is a helicopter, the apotheosis of America’s muscular might, technological supremacy and military invulnerability. This aura of invincibility took a shattering, lethal blow when Somalia militiamen shot down not one but two UH-60L Black Hawks on Oct. 3, 1993.
Famine and warlords intercepting emergency food supplies had resulted in hundreds of thousands starving to death in the East African nation of Somalia. Into the anarchy of clan rivalries and civil war, the American contingent of the United Nations peacekeeping force launched a secret mission to disable one brutal warlord in particular, Mohamed Farrah Aidid.
“Black Hawk Down” is Ridley Scott’s unflinching look at one conflict, a planned 45-minute “extraction” of Aidid’s top lieutenants that instead became a blood bath that killed 19 Americans and, it’s estimated, more than 1,000 Somalis.
Uniforms and rank distinguish the soldiers who descend upon Mogadishu, but terrible chaos renders them nearly interchangeable here, and it’s deliberate. As elite military forces — the young Rangers and the veteran Deltas — individualism yields to a trained brotherhood in which its members are willing to die for one another, even if the other is already dead. While “Leave No Man Behind” serves as and sounds like a film tagline, it’s a written creed of the Rangers that becomes the movie’s mantra.
As Ranger staff sergeant Matt Eversmann, Josh Hartnett is not so much the leading man as the terribly involved observer through which the audience becomes terribly involved itself. Shaved heads aside, much of the cast is familiar, from Ewan McGregor as desk-bound Ranger specialist Grimes to Sam Shepard as Maj. Gen. William Garrison commanding the mission from the remote Joint Operations Center.
One of the dangers of a Hollywood war film, as producer Jerry Bruckheimer showed in “Pearl Harbor,” is the most egregious civilian condescension in reducing war to special effects and heroism to a romantic triangle. By tightly focusing on 15 hours in the hostile territory of Mogadishu, director Scott pays his respects to the valor, though not necessarily the politics.
Heroism might seem suspect when foreigners — that is, Americans — intercede in someone else’s civil war, and “Black Hawk Down” early on does show the crossbreeding of worldly altruism and superpower arrogance. “So, what’s it like? Mogadishu? The fighting,” 18-year-old private Todd Blackburn (Orlando Bloom) asks on his first day. His uninformed eagerness represents the typical soldier who doesn’t know why he’s involved and doesn’t care. They don’t exactly know where they are and refer to the country’s residents as “skinnies.” Eversmann articulates the viewpoint of benevolence — “We can help, or we can sit back and watch them kill themselves on CNN” –but he is rare.
When the men embark on the mission, they show their might and indifference in leaving behind gear such as night vision goggles and additional bulletproof padding. “It’ll be nothing. Nothing,” one says in the chorus of cheerleading.
Yet when child scouts with cell phones give warning to the Somalia militia that the Americans are coming, immediately it begins to sink in how much the risks were seriously underestimated. In Mogadishu, rocket grenade launchers are commonplace arsenal, and that’s what takes down two of the powerful Black Hawks. As the mission falls apart, the Ranger creed becomes at once a heroic cry and a death sentence, for to leave no man behind means risking more lives. Once the first Black Hawk crashes, the death countdown involuntarily begins.
“Black Hawk Down” reflects this downward spiral in its riveting photography, going from sparkling panoramic Technicolor to a searing grayness interrupted by bright splotches of blood red. The technical language, weaponry and pounding exchange of gunfire contributes to a gruesome realism without sensationalizing it. This leaves the horrible numbing conviction that Scott is practicing restraint and that the surgical precision for which this operation was intended favorably contrasts with the butchery of war.
The emphasis on heroism does chafe a little, given the ratio of 19 Americans dead (and 73 injured) to so many Somalis dead. There are moments that hint at the other side’s tragedies: an old man carrying a dead child; a woman gathering a crowd of children in her arms as bullets rip into the doorway; even the snipers tumbling like dominos in the air strafing runs. How Scott might tell their story perhaps would give an answer to what the American soldiers finally asked of themselves.
Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.