Black Hawk Down is one of those “stop channel surfing” films that many people devour as often as they can.
Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan’s accounting of the terrible events and terrific heroism by American Delta Force and Army Rangers on that fateful two days in October 1993 gets it right.
Yes, it has been 20 years since one of the darkest days for America in this post-Cold War world. For on that day and the next one, brave American soldiers sacrificed themselves in downtown Mogadishu, Somalia to capture some top lieutenants of the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.
Unfortunately for these brave men–Murphy’s Law, over-confidence, poor planning and weak-kneed leadership from Washington undercut their mission, and Americans got their first real glimpses of what would later become the Global War On Terror.
Scott does an excellent job outlining the events leading up to American forces being in Somalia on a humanitarian mission which began at the end of President George H.W. Bush’s term. For those too young to have seen news reports of what happened and for those who forgot why America was there… the opening title cards (with a very respectful non-use of credits) are most welcome.
Only the words Black Hawk Down appear to remind you that you are watching a film. We quickly meet all the key players in the real events and the ones who will lead us through the film’s 144 minutes. One of the best early scenes, which preview the events to follow, follows General Garrison (Sam Shepard) sits with Atto, Aidid’s right-hand man (George Harris) and gets lectured on why America should leave Somalia alone and how it will end badly.
One gets the sense that this man knows what will happen before the General and the troops do.
When General Garrison informs his Staff and Unit Officers that the same “Washington” which is putting pressure on them to capture Aidid is the same “Washington” that won’t let them have light armor and AC-130 Spectre gunships for the raid, the film’s tension begins rises precipitously.
With much historical hindsight, the filmmakers are to be complimented for their unyielding use of the facts of what happened, how and why. The cast and crew did a great job bringing the sense of American invulnerability, righteousness, outlook and unfortunate naivety to every scene–especially the first 51 minutes of this film.
We really were in a different world before the first Blackhawk helicopter was shot down with a Rocket-Propelled Grenade or (RPG). Until October 3, 1993, most Americans had never heard of a RPG. After Black Hawk Down, they would likely never forget that acronym.
The pre-raid scene where the Rangers are removing body armor, leaving behind night-vision gear or filled water canteens while a Delta Force Veteran (Eric Bana) preps extra grenades bring on a sense of frustration. Why weren’t these men better prepared and supported?
The film’s cast is a who’s-who of early 2000 young male actors and screen veterans. The then-hot newcomer (and star) Josh Hartnett plus Ewan McGregor, Bana, Jason Isaac, Tom Sizemore, Shepard, Jeremy Piven, Orlando Bloom, Kim Coates, William Fichtner and Zeljko Ivanek underwent more than two weeks of Ranger/Special Forces training before shooting. It shows on screen.
On the last day of their week long Army Ranger orientation at Fort Benning, the actors who portrayed the Rangers received a letter which had been anonymously slipped under their door. The letter thanked them for all their hard work, and asked them to “tell our story true,” signed with the names of the Rangers who died in the Mogadishu firefight (source: IMDB.com).
No moment feels false or unearned in Black Hawk Down, and that extends to the Somali Militia side as well. The actor playing an Aidid Militia sergeant guarding Capt. Mike Durant tells the injured pilot, “Without victory, there is no peace” with such grounding that an audience feels that he may know something deeper which we don’t. Such as maybe that we don’t really understand just why America is in Mogadishu instead another place that matters more. That isn’t a political statement, but obviously there was a cultural and moral clash going on in Somalia that the United States didn’t realize the depth of previously.
It is a small scene, but it delivers a very hard punch.
Many Americans remember the disgusting images of some of our dead soldiers being dragged through Mogadishu’s streets. The filmmakers spare us those exact moments of death, but never let us forget the environment they occurred under and by whom.
What happened to those men in a visual way portended the wars we have fought since and the enemy we face today. The grounded helicopter scenes realistically display the heroic actions and impossible odds those pilots faced. Viewers cannot escape the sense that these pilots and the 123 Rangers and Delta Force members faced evil and unnecessary death on the ground with thousands of Somali militia members gunning for them.
When Eversmann (Hartnett) closes the film by saying to a dead comrade, “Everything’s changed. I’ve changed,” it seems as if he is speaking not just for himself but for his nation several thousand miles away.
Black Hawk Down, based on the book of the same name by Mark Bowden, is a great film which captures how and why we all changed forever on those two days in Mogadishu.