Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
When I was a lot younger and completely into war movies, there was a part of me that wondered what it would be like if the whole film was nothing but war. That, I figured, would be the coolest of all possible films. Well, I don’t have to wonder anymore because I’ve now seen Black Hawk Down. It takes some time for the film to get rolling into the action, but once it does, it’s pretty much shooting and explosions until the final credits. The actual shooting/war part of the film runs about 90 minutes, and it never lets up for more than a minute or two at a time.
Essentially, the film tells the story of the battle for Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993. At that time, the country was torn apart by war and famine. The reason for the famine was that a presumptive warlord named Aidid controlled both Mogadishu and all of the incoming food. Keeping that food hostage and rationed allowed him to control the stomachs, and thus the people, of his entire country. A UN peacekeeping force went to the country and was eventually pulled back. Once that happened, Aidid declared war on the remaining UN forces and a war-torn country became ever worse.
The plan that eventually became this battle was an attempt to capture two of Aidid’s main advisors. The plan was to movie in with Humvees and helicopters, surround the building the two men were in, extract them and any other useful Somali personnel, and bug out. Instead, the plan goes completely awry when one of the men slips out of a helicopter and injures himself severely when he lands on the ground. This causes other men in the helicopter to rappel down to rescue him, leading to a massed firefight and eventually the takedown of one of the Black Hawk helicopters (which also gives us the name of the film).
The situation quickly goes from bad to worse. Virtually all of the Mogadishu citizens are armed and it seems like all of them are pro-Aidid and anti-UN forces, particularly the American ones. As the Americans try to form a perimeter to keep themselves safe, they are assaulted by all manner of natives, attacking with weapons as rudimentary as rocks and as sophisticated as RPGs. The Americans start taking casualties and eventually another helicopter is taken down. Troops are separated, beleaguered, and the shooting never really stops.
Black Hawk Down depicts this combat as realistically as possible, and nothing good happens. Men are shot and torn apart, gutted by gunfire and explosions. Some die instantly, others linger in agony until mercifully expiring. And the Somali just keep on coming. There are moments when this reminded me of a zombie film with an inexhaustible supply of things for our heroes to shot at and only a dwindling supply of ammunition to keep them company. It’s bleak, to say the least.
Black Hawk Down’s strongest suit, aside from some truly excellent cinematography, is the cast. The truth is that most of the men are difficult to tell apart once they are in uniform and have their helmets on. They all have their names or a nickname written on the front, but for most of them, it doesn’t help. I’m not willing to go so far as to say that the men are interchangeable, but there’s a sense that their personalities are far less important than their roles in the military, at least in the context of this film. Among the cast are Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Josh Hartnett, Jeremy Piven, Ewan McGregor, Tom Hardy, William Fitchner, Zeljko Ivanek, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard, and a number of others. While a number of these actors are recognizable instantly, once the shooting starts, they are all pretty much interchangeable, much like the endless hordes of attacking Somalis.
That, actually, is one of the great successes of Black Hawk Down and one of its biggest failings. The film is so relentless that it becomes overwhelming, and having almost no frame of reference, while certainly accurate, makes it a very difficult watch, indeed. It’s also extremely brutal, opening scene of Saving Private Ryan brutal, and it simply never ends.
Ultimately I’m not sure I can say that I enjoyed Black Hawk Down as much as I simply survived it as a viewer. It’s not a film I can imagine wanting to watch a second time. It is remarkably well filmed without question, and it may be a genuinely great film, but I’m not sure I’m willing to submit to it a second time.
Why to watch Black Hawk Down: War as it is rarely seen.
Why not to watch: It’s overwhelming.