`Hawk' depicts tragic events in Somalia
By BILL FUSZ
Scene Movie Critic
"Only the dead have seen the end of war."
This quote, credited to Plato, appears at the beginning of both the movie "Black Hawk Down" and the book on which it is based. The haunting tone created by the phrase lingers throughout the film, providing an emotional backdrop to the true-life story of 100 elite troops fighting for their lives in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia on October 3, 1993.
As the initial onscreen captions explain, in late 1992, President Bush sent in 20,000 Marines as part of Operation Restore Hope, a large humanitarian effort designed to get food to Somalians threatened by famine and civil war. The operation was largely successful in its early, limited aims: feeding the people and restoring some basic sense of order.
The following spring, their objective accomplished, U.S. forces began withdrawing and turning the operation over to U.N. command comprised largely of Pakistani and Melaysian forces. The strongest Somalian warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, began attacking the U.N. forces and seizing food shipments. U.S. forces subsequently returned, made up of the most elite battle forces on earth: the Army Rangers and supersecret Delta Force.
The majority of the film's action is focused on the Oct. 3 daytime routing raid which went horribly wrong. Soldiers were told to capture two of Aidid's top aides at a downtown meeting and then return them to the U.S. base outside the city. The operation gets immediately complicated when a new solider falls 70 feet from a helicopter, during mid-insertion. A Black Hawk is subsequently shot down by a rocket propelled grenade.
The next two hours of film portray perhaps the most intense firefight since Vietnam and certainly the most realistic recreation of battle, both in its carnage and heroism. Ridley Scott's masterful direction allows the movie to depict the chaos of the battle without becoming too confusing for the audience to follow. Technical devices such as slow motion shots in the middle of a fierce battle are also able to add human dimensions largely missing from his last movie, "Gladiator."
The cast is pitch perfect, though the actors are difficult at times to differentiate during the action. Their haircuts and uniforms do the trick of making them look exactly that — uniform. Josh Hartnett redeems himself from "Pearl Harbor," playing Sgt. Eversmann, one of the Rangers assigned to secure the building while Delta Force, led by Eric Bana's character, actually seizes the hostages. Eversmann's commander, Capt. Steele (Jason Isaacs, "The Patriot") is a football-metaphor-obsessed Ranger who throughout the movie shows a distrust and resentment for Delta, whom he considers to be reckless and undisciplined.
The doomed ground convoy, lost for hours in the blockaded streets of Mogadishu and therefore subject to relentless fire from every angle, is led by Lt. Col. McKnight, whom Tom Sizemore ("Saving Private Ryan") depicts as a fearless soldier, walking upright through fire when others have wisely taken cover. Sam Shepard does a good if not terribly challenging job of playing Maj. Gen. Garrison, the Army commander who orders the raid, despite Washington's denial of resources he believes are necessary.
Rounding out the strong cast is Ewan MacGregor ("Moulin Rouge") as a composite character, Company Clerk John Grimes. Grimes serves as a viewpoint for the audience; stuck behind a desk for years, Grimes' first engagement in combat is this raid, and through his eyes we get to see how mistakes were made made (like leaving behind nightvision equipment). We're also privy to tactical explanations of what is going on.
It is a powerful film, one that truly portrays, as the subtitle of the book goes, "A Tale of Modern War." It is intensely focused on the battle, largely to the exclusion of context. Those looking for a message or interpretation of U.S. intervention in Somalia will have to look elsewhere. But in focusing so powerfully on the actions of the soldiers on the ground, their experiences and their heroism, Scott shows an understanding of what film does best: it gives us a breathless visual glimpse of the hell that is war. -- Four and a half shamrocks (out of five)
Contact Bill Fusz at email@example.com.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, January 31, 2002