Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Black Hawk Down

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

BLACK HAWK DOWN

5/10

USA 2001
director : Ridley Scott
script : Ken Nolan, Steve Zaillian (based on book by Mark Bowden)
producers include : Jerry Bruckheimer, Scott, Simon West
cinematography : Slawomir Idziak
editing : Pietro Scalia
music : Hans Zimmer
lead actors : Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Eric Bana
with : Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Ewan Bremner
144+ minutes

Americas botched Mogadishu operation of 1993 is the backdrop to Black Hawk Down, for director Scott a return to White Squall, the now-forgotten men-n-boys-ensemble sailing-pic flop that preceded his box-office double whammy of Gladiator and Hannibal. Hes now established as a versatile, jobbing director-for-hire, as comfortable in the dusty streets of Somalia as the shadowy recesses of Florentian galleries or the vast expanses of the Roman Empire. This time, he brings Bowdens bestseller to the screen with hands-off neutrality whether the film is pro or anti war, pro or anti the US, pro or anti the Mogadishu op, all are left in the eye of the beholder.

It can be read any which way: either as gung-ho, Behind Enemy Lines style flagwaver (in which capacity it was screened by President Bush to 20 Republican Senators) or as a pacifist Thin Red Line tract, convincing us that War Is Hell by putting us through it for two solid hours. Scott, of course, started out in advertising his most famous commercial being for the Hovis loaf. He still owns a large production house, and he’s never quite left that world behind – throughout Black Hawk Down, you feel like youre being sold something, and whatever it is, you suspect it probably isn’t as good for you as brown bread.

Leaving aside the guiding ideology (or lack of) on show, however, its appropriate that the films pivotal event is the downing of a pair of Black Hawk helicopters. Because Scott also ends up defeated by the cumbersome vastness of his hardware as, like commanding officer Garrison (Shepard), he gradually loses control of his intricately planned exercise. What should be a developing story bogs down into a succession of noisy scenes, and Scott seems so distracted planning his next but of pyrotechnics that the actors end up left to their own devices. This results in some plain bad performances Orlando Bloom is worst of the lot as a greenhorned grunt, though McGregors ropey American accent places him not far behind. In the nominal lead, Hartnett growls out his lines in a grim monotone, allowing Bana to steal the show as a seen-it-all, too-cool-for-school, mountain-bike-riding Action Man, somehow retaining his hardass dignity (not to mention his straight face) as he spits out some of the scripts corniest frontline homilies.

Very few of the others make much impression, though its clearly part of the films point that we can’t tell them apart or make any emotional connection with them. Everything, of course, can be defended as part of the point the dehumanisation, the chaos, the numbness, the tedium. And whatever criticisms you try to level at the film can probably be traced back to Bowdens book, such as the unambiguously shameful way each of the 18 US fatalities are identified by name in the end titles, while at the same time were quoted the rough figure of 1,000 Somali dead. Every time an American dies in Black Hawk Down, its an event but the skinnies are mown down by the dozen. Yes, Skinnies is how undernourished Somalians are referred to throughout the film but, of course, that isn’t the film speaking. Its the book. Its the soldiers. So that makes it all right.

29th January, 2002
(seen Jan-14-02, Warner Village, Newcastle)

by Neil Young