Black Hawk Down – 4.5 stars

Ridley Scott’s depiction of The Battle of Mogadishu communicates the warrior culture, the confusion of urban battle, the domino effect of error therein, and the strain on its combatants. In 1993, after upwards of 300,000 Somalis perished through civil war-induced starvation, the U.S. sat on the ground in Somalia to support U.N. humanitarian efforts while attempting to capture the warlord Aidid. The movie recreates a mission to capture some of the warlord’s top lieutenants, a mission that unravels after two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down in the city and the goal of quick extraction transforms into a desperate rescue to the crash sites as the city inflames.

The film is astonishing in several respects. The mission itself is complicated, and in support, there are four squads (“chalks”), of which Josh Hartnett commands one, with all four being under the direction of Jason Isaacs; a motorized convoy led by Tom Sizemore; numerous helicopters, including two piloted by Ron Eldard and Jeremy Piven shot down by RPGs; a single helicopter acting as spotter for all action on the ground (that spotter being Zeljko Ivanek); and a command center helmed by Sam Shepard. Included is this vast ensemble cast is Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Iaon Gruffud, Orlando Bloom, Hugh Dancy, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tom Hardy, and Ty Burrell (it is a testament to the vagaries of a Hollywood that a post-Pearl Harbor Hartnett got his name above the title during the closing credits). Despite all of these moving parts in the midst of a confusing, hellish street-by-street battle, the viewer is never confused. You know who you are looking at, why they are there, and what has gone wrong with the objective at all times. Lesser directors can be flummoxed by a minor shoot-out in a western town.

The film won Oscars for sound editing and sound mixing. Given the melee, changes in topography and vantage point, it is nothing less than aural masterpiece.

Some critics took Scott to task for reducing the Somalis to props and/or cannon fodder. Much of that, however, is unavoidable given the disparity in firepower and casualties (18 American dead and 80 wounded to an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 Somali casualties) and the focus of the Mark Bowden book upon which the flick is based (the Somali view is barely represented and boiled down to a bromide in the film – “there will always be war . . . killing is negotiation”).

If there is a flaw, it is in Scott’s need for a message.  There is no political angle, and the aftermath is equivocal. On a broader scale, some might say we should never be in such a place, others might disagree but insist upon a defined goal, and still others decry the abrupt withdrawal after the battle as having elevated optics over lives (Osama bin Laden himself opined that the withdrawal showed American weakness). I’m perfectly happy with a conclusion that supports any stance, but happier with one that leaves a conclusion to the viewer.  But Scott fixes on an ultimate theme: that battle is first and foremost about the man next to you. After two-and-a-half hours of white-knuckle survival with the soldiers, the message is more than delivered. But just in case we missed it, Bana says exactly that to Hartnett.  Clunk.

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