After the Oscar-winning spectacle of Gladiator and the largely panned sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Ridley Scott agreed to take on the considerable task of filming the adaptation of Mark Bowden’s non-fiction book Black Hawk Down: a Story of Modern War. Scott’s movies had up to that point always been firmly rooted in the realm of make-believe (technically White Squall was based on true events, but that felt more like an adventure movie). Black Hawk Down would be his first movie based on an event that everybody remembered vividly from seeing that American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. It was a gamble to put such a visually inclined director in charge of a story this sensitive.
The gamble, however, paid off. Black Hawk Down is a stunning movie about the devastating consequences of war and the toll it takes on the lives of young and old soldiers alike. For those who don’t know, Black Hawk Down is based on the events that occurred on October 3 and 4 on the streets of Mogadishu. While on a mission to capture dictator Aidid, an American Black Hawk helicopter is shot down. It crashes and the crew is in grave danger. The soldiers who are on their mission elsewhere in the city are reassigned to the crash site to defend the downed helicopter, while being attacked by hundreds of Somalian militia soldiers. The events that follow will take every last bit of comradery, expertise and bravery from these soldiers. Scott is not often described as a compassionate director. He often lets the characters and the audience figure out for themselves what they have to think about each other. Not so here in Black Hawk Down.
The first twenty minutes or so are there exclusively to convey some basic ideas about the situation. It is pretty clear that Scott wants to tell us that the Somalians are also victims in this situation, because our main character (Josh Hartnett) happens to think so. There a lot more of these moments to get us on board with Scott’s intentions for Black Hawk Down. Of course, this introductory sequence is also used to explain the geographical situation in and around Mogadishu and the relationship between all the soldiers. This groundwork is needed badly, because when we’re in the thick of it, there is hardly any time to figure out where we are and who we are looking at. Controversial was Scott’s choice to put the names of the characters on the helmets. This does not happen in real life, but was certainly necessary for us to keep track of everybody.
After these first twenty minutes the mission commences and that’s when Black Hawk Down starts to really shine. This is no-holds-barred balls-to-the-wall movie warfare. This is as close as us non-soldiers will ever come to being in a war. What Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan did for our perception of the invasion in Normandy, Black Hawk Down does for desert urban warfare. I can tell you that this is not for the faint of heart, because Scott pulls no punches when he is portraying these battles between the American troops and the Somalian militias. It is a constant barrage of gunfire, explosions, helicopters, Humvees and anything that goes into urban battle.
Black Hawk Down is a veritable Who’s Who of male actors (there are no women involved here). Scott has assembled an enormous amount of talent for this story. Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, Hugh Dancy, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard, Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Piven are but a few names involved in Black Hawk Down. Having this many well-known faces could have been a disadvantage, but it doesn’t get in the way of the action really. Having this many good actors in one place wanting to present this story as best as they can is great for the movie. But while the American soldiers are all individualized, the Somalian population is largely represented by faceless cannon fodder. This is, however, something we see more often in American war movies or war movies in general. Platoon and the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan also didn’t really concern themselves with profiling the opposition. Black Hawk Down is therefore a movie about the plight of the American soldiers in this conflict not the population at large. Hence Scott’s explanation at the beginning of the movie about them being victims as well.
As expected, Scott does not skimp on the enormity of the situation. While this is an intimate story about soldiers being hunted in a hostile environment, Scott paints this harrowing story against a backdrop that is worthy of any huge action movie. This is probably where the influence of producer Jerry Bruckheimer comes into play. Scott has the ability to create incredible worlds with modest budgets, so given the considerably large budget for Black Hawk Down (about $92 million) it is not surprising it looks this good. The sound is truly breathtaking and worthy of the Oscars it received. Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak shot the whole thing in astonishing detail. With Black Hawk Down Scott has made his most daring movie yet. Handling a story like this as if it were a Call of Duty videogame and infusing these adrenaline-fueled circumstances with all this humanity and characterization is the mark of a great director. It ranks among Scott’s best movies.